LAWRENCE — It doesn’t always work for Kansas. These young players aren’t always where they’re supposed to be. They take questionable shots at times, forget to box out their opponents and let what appear to be safe leads evaporate in minutes, sometimes seconds.
Then you look up at the end of the night and five Jayhawks have scored in double figures. Seven-footer Joel Embiid, as raw as your last order at the sushi bar, has 12 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, three assists and four steals. And it feels like he should be doing more.
Point guard Naadir Tharpe idles for so long, then kicks into another gear and finishes with 19 points, five assists and 6-of-7 shooting.
Wayne Selden lifts the Jayhawks with 13 of his 15 points in the first half, then grabs a rhythm guitar and plays backup the rest of the night.
Then there’s Andrew Wiggins, who seemingly can do no wrong even when everything he’s doing seems to be wrong. KU coach Bill Self, though, sticks with Wiggins and he comes through with one of the game’s biggest baskets, a three-pointer — his only one of the game — with 2:40 remaining to give the Jayhawks a 74-66 lead in a game they would eventually win, 83-75, over Oklahoma.
And if you’re counting — and if you’re a Kansas fan you’d be a fool not to — that’s 10 Big 12 championships in a row for the Jayhawks. When do we start taking about them getting into a different conference?
For now, to be accurate, KU has only secured a tie for the conference crown with Iowa State and Texas lurking three games back with three to play. But I’m going out on a limb to predict the Jayhawks get at least one of their remaining three — at Oklahoma State (Saturday), Texas Tech (March 5) and at West Virginia (March 8).
“Every year, that’s what we say every time we bring it in from the summer time through the conference season,” Tharpe said. “Past teams have been doing the same thing and we’re just happy we were able to do it, as well.”
Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and J.R. Giddens were the standouts of the last Kansas team not to win a conference championship in 2003-04. You remember them, right?
It was Bill Self’s first season and particularly critical KU fans still ask him what happened then?
Not really, but 10 straight Big 12 championships will spoil a fan base and built unrealistic expectations, although the Jayhawks keep realizing them. At least most of them.
Of course, the KU lovers would like more deep runs into the NCAA Tournament. Winning 10 straight Big 12 championships is at once one of the most remarkable accomplishments in college sports and ho-hum.
Not to Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who grew up 40 miles from Lawrence in Silver Lake and became a great Big Eight player at Kansas State.
“It’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” Kruger said. “It’s not like they’re doing that in a bad league. They’re doing that in a very good league. Certainly it’s a tribute to Bill and the job he’s done with the program in every way.”
This team, with all of its high-profile freshmen, has brought Self to the edge a few times. It’s a team capable of anything, including rolling a good team like Texas and going to the final second and needing a lucky bounce to beat Texas Tech in Lubbock.
Most of the time, though, Kansas comes out on top. The Jayhawks have played the toughest schedule in the country this season and have won 22 of 28. And it feels like they’re just scratching the surface.
“I don’t think we’re that close to our ceiling if we’re looking at our game tonight,” Self said. “If we’re looking at Saturday (against Texas), then I think we were playing pretty much against it. These guys have figured out how to win a little bit. This is a game we would have lost in December or even early January. But I thought our guys played well and figured out how to do it.”
Tharpe was great in the final 10 minutes. Wiggins made a huge shot to go with a key three-point play with 7:53 to play that gave Kansas a four-point lead and a sliver of breathing room.
It’s not always the same guy for the Jayhawks. Sometimes you wonder who is leading out there.
“We won (a national championship) in ‘08 and nobody knew who our leader was,” Self said. “Or who our go-to guy was. I think this team is becoming a little like that.”
If Big 12 championships have become blase, national titles have not. Is this team good enough to win one? Depends on the night, probably. But the talent is definitely there.