LAWRENCE — The trip back home was slow and quiet. Some Kansas players took the time to process a lost opportunity. Some just needed a few hours to rest after a grueling 18-game conference season.
For a KU program that had clinched a ninth-straight Big 12 title and gotten tagged with a 23-point loss at Baylor on the same Saturday, this was about as rowdy as the victory party would get.
“We didn’t pop any bubbly on the way back from Waco. Trust me,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Self, though, wanted to leave his players with some positive reinforcement. So after the team bus finally pulled back into Lawrence late Saturday night, Self told his guys that he was proud of them. Yes, they had squandered a chance to win the league title outright. But they had set a goal. And then achieved it. And, well, that was about it.
“I don’t see any reason to be giddy about it or celebrate in a big way,” Self said. “Even though we’re happy with our accomplishment, why would we not put a foot on a throat? Why would we take the foot off the gas?”
Self isn’t saying that’s what happened on Saturday at Baylor. But after learning that Kansas State had lost at Oklahoma State — and a share of the title was theirs — the Jayhawks lacked the urgency that had defined their seven-game winning streak over the final weeks of the season.
“We’ve got to get that killer instinct, so moving forward, if we experience some success, we don’t think that success automatically comes to you,” Self said.
If Kansas needs an opportunity to refocus before the NCAA Tournament, the chance comes this week in Kansas City, where the Jayhawks are the No. 1 seed in a Big 12 tournament that has the feel of a winner-take-all tiebreaker.
No. 7 Kansas (26-5 and 14-4 in Big 12) and rival Kansas State were all square after a round-robin league schedule, and the Jayhawks are hoping to turn the Big 12 tourney into three days of score-settling at the Sprint Center.
It starts with a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of No. 8 seed West Virginia and No. 9 Texas Tech at 2 p.m. on Thursday.
“I feel like the (Big 12) tournament gives you one last time to kind of see who’s the best,” KU senior center Jeff Withey said.
For Kansas, though, conference bragging-rights are a surface-level motivation. In a grander sense, the Jayhawks can play for something a little more significant: the prospect of returning to the Sprint Center the following week for the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawks’ case for a No. 1 seed was downgraded after Saturday’s loss at Baylor, but KU still has a pretty solid case to be a No. 2, a seed that would likely lock them into the Kansas City site.
It’s been a volatile season, of course, and with league tournaments taking place across the country, the Jayhawks can rebuild their No. 1-seed resume with a couple of statement victories in Kansas City.
“I personally think the one seed is overrated,” Self said. “But I told our guys, ‘Do we deserve to be the one seed if we don’t go to Kansas City and win the tournament? The answer is no. Let’s focus on what’s first.’”
On Thursday, Withey said he liked the idea of posting up in downtown Kansas City for a couple of weekends. For one, the Jayhawks are 3-0 at the Sprint Center this season. And they might as well rack up a few more hotel points in a familiar and friendly place. It’s not exactly spring break in Fort Lauderdale, but there will be plenty of blue at the Power & Light District.
“Kansas City has been good to us,” Withey said.
All in all, it’s a pretty promising path. Five games. Two weekends. All happening just 40 miles from the KU campus.
“If we go to Kansas City and play great and we’re not a one seed, I’m fine with that,” Self said. “I’m fine with whatever. Getting hung up on a one seed, to me, is not worth it.
“It’s all about matchups. I like to be as high a seed as possible, because that would probably guarantee us getting a chance to play close to home.”