LAWRENCE — The small box sits somewhere in Bill Self’s office, a tangible symbol of Big 12 dominance. This is where he keeps his championship rings.
When a treasured visitor walks into Self’s office — usually a big-time recruit — he’ll go fishing for the box and flash the growing trove of goods. But that’s about it. Otherwise, they just sit, like forgotten family heirlooms.
“It really doesn’t serve much purpose other than that,” Self says of the box. “I don’t think I’ve ever put one on.”
For the last eight years, Self has been adding rings to the collection, one for each regular-season conference title either won or shared. There have been others, of course, grander achievements like the 2008 NCAA championship. But those conference rings provide the collection’s foundation.
And when Kansas tips off against Baylor at 5 p.m. Saturday in Waco, Texas, Self and the Jayhawks will have an opportunity to seize another ring. The fourth-ranked Jayhawks are 26-4 and 14-3 in the Big 12, tied atop the conference standings with in-state rival Kansas State, which hasn’t won or shared a conference title since 1977.
When the Jayhawks take the floor at the Ferrell Center, the Wildcats’ showdown with Oklahoma State in Stillwater will be over, meaning the Jayhawks will be well aware of their situation: If K-State loses, KU clinches a share of the title and the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 Tournament by virtue of sweeping the Wildcats in the regular season. A K-State loss and a KU win would give the Jayhawks their fifth straight outright title. But if K-State wins, KU will have the added burden of needing a road victory to lock up a share of the title and keep its Big 12 streak alive at nine.
“I am going to say it will be good,” Self said of playing second. “I don’t know if it will be or not though. I just want our guys to play with a free mind. They are going to play fired up and be excited, but I don’t want them to burn any energy worrying about K-State.”
The idea of sharing a title with Kansas State can, of course, lead to some conflicting emotions. The Jayhawks have shared three Big 12 titles during their eight-year run. But when Big 12 play began in January, KU looked like a well-oiled machine ready to run roughshod over the entire conference. And even after some early scares, Kansas started 7-0 and built a two-game lead in the standings. A ninth straight title felt like a birthright.
But then came a home loss to Oklahoma State, and an unthinkable disaster at TCU. And after a loss at Oklahoma on Feb. 9, the Jayhawks were 7-3 with road games at Oklahoma State and Iowa State remaining.
For a proud group of seniors, doubt began to creep in. It felt like a ninth straight title wasn’t meant to be.
“A little bit,” senior forward Kevin Young said.
But following the TCU loss, Young said former Kansas star Wayne Simien met with the team and told a story. During Simien’s senior season in 2005, the Jayhawks had also lost three straight before salvaging a share of the title with two late victories.
“That gave us a lot of hope,” Young said.
But herein lies the Jayhawks’ confounding state. Nobody wants to share a title with a rival when you were the overwhelming favorite. But considering what KU went through, Self says this could be the sweetest trophy grab of all.
“If we win Saturday,” Self said, “this will be as cool as any that we have won. A lot of people thought it was Kansas and everybody else for the league race. Those people that thought that really didn’t get it, at least from our perspective.
“Our league is good and you know it is good. The Big 12 just did not have a good preseason, but teams have played better since we got into league play. I think for us to go through a tough stretch the way we did, I think a win Saturday will make this as gratifying as any league title we have won.”
Earlier this week, Self and his players said K-State’s result against Oklahoma State wouldn’t affect their preparation for Baylor. But it would be mildly disingenuous to say that they had no interest in how it played out.
“I don’t think anybody likes sharing much,” Self said.
“I’ve always been selfish,” KU senior guard Elijah Johnson said. “I’m trying to be selfish again. Trying to take it all. I wanna own it.”
For an afternoon in Waco, the focus will be on the Big 12 title streak — a run that hasn’t been seen in a major conference since John Wooden’s reign at UCLA. But the Jayhawks, Self says, will ultimately be judged by how they perform in the NCAA Tournament.
Those are the games, he says, where a great season can become special. And Self hopes the foundation for a March run was laid during the Big 12 stretch run.
“Usually the teams that play the best in the postseason are the teams that went through some crap during the (regular) season,” Self said. “It seems like it is always that way; it toughens them, hardens them.
“Nobody likes going through that stuff, but there is always a certain point in time in the season when you become a team, and we have just become a team here in the last three or four weeks.”