COLUMBIA, Mo. — When the Big 12 season began in early January, an educated guess would have had the Kansas Jayhawks winning the league title.
That vision likely would have included freshman guard Josh Selby evolving into a star by March, Tyshawn Taylor adjusting to Selby's presence and KU extending the nation's longest home-court winning streak to 75 games.
The Jayhawks clinched the outright Big 12 regular-season championship on Saturday with a 70-66 victory over Missouri at Mizzou Arena, but, in the process, Bill Self's team totally flipped the script. Yes, after seven in a row, the end result has become predictable. But the path to this ring had more twists and turns than any KU fan should care to stomach.
Kansas lost to Texas at Allen Fieldhouse, surrendering control of the league race on Jan. 22 and ending its 69-game home win streak. KU fell again on Feb. 14 at Kansas State in embarrassing fashion. Meanwhile, the Longhorns still hadn't lost.
"Three weeks ago, we had no chance," Self said.
Yet, on Saturday, there was Self, calling a timeout with KU leading 63-59, just 1 minute, 16 seconds away from winning a third straight outright league title.
The team that Self brought in for a huddle during that timeout was not the team he huddled with during the Big 12 opener. It was closer, with battle wounds deserved and undeserved.
Sophomore forward Thomas Robinson no longer had a mother — Lisa, 43, died on Jan. 21 of an apparent heart attack — and he also was playing with a right knee that was repaired through surgery on Feb. 11.
Selby had hurt his ankle at Colorado on Jan. 25, and that injury turned into a stress reaction in his right foot. Selby has played the last six games, but he has not been an important part of any of them. On Saturday, Selby, whom Self labeled the most talented player he's recruited, had no points and three turnovers and sat the entire second half. This was not the same kid who debuted Dec. 18 against Southern California with 21 points and a game-winning three — proof of how quickly things can change during the grind of January and February.
Turned out, Taylor didn't have to worry about learning to play with Selby. And when Taylor served a two-game suspension last week for violating team rules, the Jayhawks had to win without both of them to put themselves in this position.
Self looked at the Jayhawks during that timeout Saturday and said he wanted to draw up a fade screen to free senior Tyrel Reed for a three in the corner.
"I'll make it," Reed assured him.
Sure enough, Taylor found Reed wide open in the corner, and Reed drilled it just as he'd done so many times during his four years.
"Biggest shot of the game," Self said.
Reed is one of four constants that have allowed the Jayhawks to accomplish their goals despite veering off their original course. The consistency of Reed, Brady Morningstar and the Morris twins have turned the rest of KU's cast into interchangeable parts.
The Jayhawks overcame a season-high 24 turnovers against Missouri because they outrebounded MU 49-29 and the Tigers shot 30 percent. The Morris twins and Robinson combined for 46 points and 31 rebounds, with Robinson putting up his 15 points and 13 rebounds in 17 minutes.
"That's unheard of," said Marcus Morris, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds. "If we can get that play out of him the rest of the year, we're gonna be tough to beat."
The "ifs" of the month to come will be debated over and over again until the nets are cut down at the Final Four in Houston. The Jayhawks were already talking about all the work they still have to do.
"We've got a bigger fish to catch," Robinson said.
But don't let the Jayhawks (29-2, 14-2) fool you: They relished this catch.
"Seven in a row," said sophomore guard Elijah Johnson, who turned in a no-turnover performance in 26 minutes. "Whatever you expected or could imagine, that's what happened in the locker room. We couldn't wait to get in there."
KU's coaches tried to make sure their players knew how big of a deal it was. Johnson and Robinson were in middle school when the run started with a share of the title in 2005, so what could they really know about it? Self was asked about his teams doing something that no major-conference team had done since John Wooden's UCLA teams won 13 in a row during 1967-79, and he smiled.
"They also had six national championships, too," Self said. "I think that's a little more impressive."