In the 24 hours after another loss, Kansas coach Bill Self tried to find a measure of perspective. When your team loses four nonconference games for the first time in five years, this kind of positive thinking can be needed. So on Monday, Self went about his day.
His wife, Cindy, sent him a text message reminding him to “Enjoy the process,” echoing a phrase Self had uttered in the preseason. In a morning conference call with reporters, he repeated the fact that Kansas had lost three of its four games on the last possession. And late on Monday evening, during his radio show, Self offered another line of therapy for ailing Jayhawks.
“They remember we lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16,” Self said. “That is the reality of it.”
The point was obvious. If No. 18 Kansas (9-4) can win its 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title and enjoy a long run in March, nobody will dwell on the early struggles during the non-conference season, including a 4-4 stretch that culminated with a 61-57 loss to San Diego State last Sunday.
“Our first portion of the season wasn’t that good,” freshman guard Frank Mason said, repeating a message from Self. “But now our second portion we got to become a better team … the real season starts now.”
The real season, in other words, begins on Wednesday night at Oklahoma, where Kansas will begin its chase for that unprecedented 10th straight title. And while a Big 12 redemption story is certainly within grasp, nobody expected the path to be so difficult. Back in October, when Self was telling fans to enjoy the process of a young team growing up, most expected the Big 12 title race to be a two-team battle between KU and Oklahoma State. Who expected Iowa State to start 13-0 and be ranked No. 9 in the country, or No. 7 Baylor to own a neutral-court victory over Kentucky? Who had defending co-champion Kansas State returning to the rankings after a slow start?
For the most part, Self did not. In a candid moment after KU’s loss to San Diego State, Self said he probably would have scheduled a little softer late in the non-conference slate if he knew he was opening Big 12 play with a stretch that includes Oklahoma (12-2) and the Big 12’s four other ranked teams (K-State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor).
“The first 12 days of our league schedule,” Self said. “… that’s probably about as tough as you could play.”
Still, Self wants to be clear about one thing. His team may have played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country, and its four losses may have come against teams ranked in the top 15. But he’s not making excuses based on the competition.
“I’m not bitching about the schedule,” Self said.
The Jayhawks enter the Big 12 season battle-tested, but they have also been exposed. In four games against ranked opponents, Kansas has played poorly and still had a chance to win in the final minutes. That’s a positive, Self says, but it’s also alarming.
“We’ve learned that we’re not always going to play great,” Self said. “But when we’re not playing great, we have to make sure we make other teams play bad and do the things that tough teams do, in order to win last minute-type games. We haven’t been able to do that four times.”
In a survey of Kansas’ previous seven seasons, Self’s teams were had compiled a record of 45-15 in games decided by six points or less (or in overtime). This year, the Jayhawks are 1-4.
Maybe its toughness. Maybe it’s experience. Kansas just hasn’t made enough plays in the final minutes.
“In this league — I don’t have a crystal ball,” Self said. “I’ll be shocked if we don’t play eight games out of our 18-game league schedule that doesn’t come to the last minute. So the team that executes best in the last minute will probably be the team that has the best chance to win the league.”
To this point, Self says the competition has kept KU from winning games when it didn’t play its best. You can build confidence in those games, Self says, and the Jayhawks are still searching for it. The quest for a 10th straight Big 12 title is on, and the Jayhawks will have to do it the hard way.
“We can get off to a great start or we can play catch-up,” Self said. “So it’s certainly important that we play as well as we’ve played all year early on in our conference season.”