LAWRENCE — When Kansas coach Bill Self has needed to fire up his team this season, he has not tip-toed around the pink elephant in the room.
The Jayhawks have not played defense like the 2008 national championship team — at least not as often as that team did — so why avoid making the comparison? You want to bring home another trophy on that Monday night in April? Well, here's the gold standard. Self has not hesitated to pop in tape from the '08 season to demonstrate how to "D" up.
"We watch how back then we flew around," KU senior Sherron Collins said. "We get to that point at certain times. We just don't stay consistent with it."
And maybe that's the easiest way to explain why this Kansas team hasn't run many teams out of the building during Big 12 play in the process of running up a staggering 13-0 record. While the 2008 team won six league games by at least 20 points (including two 30-point wins and a monstrous 58-point demolition), these Jayhawks have won just three by at least 20 points and none by 30 or more.
KU failed to beat league bottom-feeders Nebraska, Iowa State and Oklahoma by more than 15 points in Allen Fieldhouse and blew a 16-point first-half lead at Colorado before beating the Buffaloes in overtime.
"I think this team does a pretty good job of playing the situation," KU coach Bill Self said, "and sometimes that's bad, when you get a big lead early, and sometimes it's really good when you really need to hunker down and get stops and execute late. There is an element of toughness with this team that does exist that rivals certainly that '08 team."
Certainly, it could be argued that these Jayhawks are tougher at this point in the season. While the '08 team lost at Kansas State, at Texas and at Oklahoma State, the '10 group could accomplish a sweep of that rigorous road trio with a win today in Stillwater at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
"It'd be nice for this team to definitely make a sweep of that," Self said, "to do something that other team labored so much to do."
So while Self has been on the Jayhawks about their defensive intensity, this team is finding a way to get results when it counts. At this juncture in 2008, when KU arrived in Stillwater on a Saturday in late February, the Jayhawks had not yet come together as a team. Sure, they had the thoroughbreds to stomp the life out of the Big 12's worst teams, but they would become fractured when challenged.
"That team was reeling a little bit," Self said. "We had some issues going on that were internal that were minor but just enough that if it wasn't addressed court hurt your team or break your team up. That loss (to Oklahoma State) magnified everything and let everything come out, which helped us. I don't think this team's going through that stuff right now."
Unlike the 2008 team, this year's bunch has clear leadership. KU's players know who to look to when times are tough.
"You've got a lot of leadership with Sherron and Cole (Aldrich)," KU guard Tyrel Reed said. "There's just a calmness out there that you know someone is going to make a play, and we're all confident in each other."
The Jayhawks have won five of their six Big 12 road games in sold-out arenas.
"Our guys would be disappointed if it wasn't full," Self said. "They get juiced from that."
Nobody gets more satisfaction out of road wins than Collins, who will have won at every Big 12 arena except Texas Tech's if KU can win today. He was a critical member of that '08 team, and he does see a difference in the road mentality.
"I'd say we still enjoyed it two years ago, we just didn't carry it all the way out," Collins said. "We probably do enjoy it a little bit more. We play better on the road sometimes."
Still, while the signs are positive now, this team's toughness will be judged just like every other team in the country: in March and April.
"You knew that (2008) team was tough when it counted the most," Self said. "Every coach questions how they're gonna react in certain situations. Seeing a team (win) down nine with two minutes left, that team was tough. There aren't too many teams in the country that could pull that off."