It was one week ago, inside a room at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, that Kansas coach Bill Self let his team know the stakes. The Jayhawks had just been blitzed by Baylor in their regular-season finale, a bitter loss that allowed in-state rival Kansas State to grab a share of the regular-season Big 12 title.
The Jayhawks had clinched a ninth straight Big 12 title that day. But it didn’t feel like it. The players sulked, and the plane trip back to Lawrence was absent any sign of celebration.
But if there was any question about how Kansas would respond, Self laid it out in plain terms.
“Now we get a chance to go to Kansas City,” Self said then, “… and see who the best team is.”
On Saturday night, in front of a standing-room only crowd at the Sprint Center, the seventh-ranked Jayhawks left no doubt, manhandling No. 11 K-State in a 70-54 victory in the Big 12 Tournament title game.
Kansas clinched its sixth Big 12 Tournament title under Self, bolstering its case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the process. But in three days in Kansas City, the Jayhawks did more than claim conference bragging-rights on the eve of Selection Sunday.
They did it in a way that didn’t even seem possible one week ago. Who had freshman Perry Ellis turning into inside beast, averaging 17.5 points per game in the semifinal and final? Who had freshman Ben McLemore being held to a season-low five points in a third battle with Kansas State — and the Jayhawks still chalking up a double-digit victory?
The result, of course, was not surprising. But the path certainly was.
The Jayhawks entered Saturday’s title game after taking care of No. 9 seed Texas Tech and No. 5 Iowa State in convincing fashion. But this was more than your usual conference tournament — a four-day event that is usually forgotten by the first week of the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas had earned a piece of its ninth straight Big 12 title, but a loss to Baylor on the regular-season’s final day opened the door for a shared title with Kansas State. The Jayhawks had already posted two victories over K-State, including one at Bramlage Coliseum in late January. But now they needed another.
And the Wildcats, who earned a share of their first conference title since 1977, had a chance to record a landmark victory against their in-state rival.
Perhaps the Wildcats were just a little too keyed up. Or maybe it was the fatigue of playing three games in three days. Either way, Kansas limited K-State to six first-half field goals while taking a 24-16 lead.
The Jayhawks took control early in the second half, as sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe drained a three-pointer to push the lead to 36-26, and then followed with a 45-foot bounce pass to Travis Releford for a bucket in transition.
Moments later, Tharpe, who finished with four three-pointers, drilled another trey, stretching the lead to 43-31. It wasn’t too late for the Wildcats to make a run. But it might as well have been.
Kansas senior Jeff Withey would finish with 17 points and nine rebounds, claiming honors as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.