University of Kansas

Kansas sets off in search of another Big 12 title

In the days after Kansas’ statement victory over Kansas State on Monday, sophomore Naadir Tharpe says he couldn’t detect much change. The KU students still wore their blue T-shirts around the hilly campus. The steam whistle still blew, signaling the end of classes. The students still set up shop in the hallways of Allen Fieldhouse, camping out for seats for Saturday’s game against Texas.

If a pall had been cast over campus during the Jayhawks’ startling three-game losing streak, the Jayhawks’ classmates must have done a pretty good job of putting on a good face when the basketball players were around.

“I don’t think it really felt un-normal,” Tharpe said of the environment in Lawrence during KU’s three-game skid. “But I guess it’s a little change.”

Some changes are more apparent than others. After a confidence-shaking stretch, the Jayhawks (20-4, 8-Big 12) enter the weekend tied for first place in the Big 12 with Kansas State and Oklahoma State. They control their destiny — though KU coach Bill Self notes that a lot of teams do — and Thursday was another sunny day outside Allen Fieldhouse.

“I think the confidence is back,” Self said.

Yeah, there was a lot of talk about confidence on Thursday. Maybe some extra bounce in practice. Perhaps a little residual swagger from Monday’s complete performance.

“I definitely see a lot of guys with a different type of mindset,” Tharpe said.

But soon enough, Kansas will return to the floor. And the Jayhawks’ will have to face this reality: Their three-game swoon put their Big 12-title streak (now at eight) in legitimate jeopardy. And while KU will be heavily favored Saturday against Texas, the real challenge will come when the Jayhawks aren’t playing in front of packed houses at Allen Fieldhouse.

“We have set ourselves up for a journey that is of a great opportunity and it will certainly test us,” Self said. “We can know a lot more about ourselves moving forward into the postseason on how we react within the next month.”

The journey sets up like this: Kansas will finish with four of its last seven at home, including games against Texas, TCU, West Virginia and Texas Tech and road trips to Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor.

Oklahoma State has a slightly less thorny path that includes home games against Oklahoma, KU, Texas and K-State — and road trips to West Virginia, TCU and Iowa State.

K-State will play at home against Baylor, West Virginia, Texas Tech and TCU and take trips to Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State.

The logjam atop the conference puts Self and Kansas in an unfamiliar spot. Self knows his team will ultimately be measured by how it plays in March, but the Jayhawks’ title streak has turned into a program-defining measurement as well.

A big enough burden that on Wednesday night, Self said the topic came up with his wife, Cindy.

“She was saying, ‘You know what? We’re going to win the league. We can still win the league.’ ” Self recalled. “And I said ‘I know babe, we can do this. But if we don’t, what would happen?’ She said ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t remember.’ ”

Looking past such a possibility, Self says he’d like his team to break free of any streak-imposed shackles and just focus on getting better.

“It’s one of those things that everybody around here is judged on the postseason,” Self said. “Don’t you guys feel like the league titles, in past years, take second place to everything else? We won eight in a row, but it’s ‘What have you done for me in the postseason?’

“We understand that. But now that we’re tied for first, it’s like the sky is falling if you don’t win the league. Later on, (people) are going to say it didn’t really matter as much. But it matters to our players and it matters to our staff.”