They had gathered in the locker room for a two-hour meeting, a time to talk and vent and think about the future.
Kansas coach Bill Self
wanted his players to think long and deeply about their identity. As his players looked on, he pulled out some coaching materials and began reciting the Jayhawks’ team statistics compared with their Big 12 men’s basketball rivals.
Kansas, Self told his team, ranked dead last in the Big 12 in team field-goal percentage (42.6) and eighth in field-goal percentage defense (41.9). The two facts led into a simple question:
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“What do we do?” Self asked his players. “Tell me what we can hang our hat on. What is our program?”
A few moments passed, and the deliberation began, and when the discussion had ended, the players had settled on one trait.
“Well, we find a way to win games.”
OK, so maybe there is not quite an existential crisis taking place in the Kansas locker room these days. The 12th-ranked Jayhawks are 11-2 after playing one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules. But as Kansas prepares for its Big 12 opener at Baylor on Wednesday night, it appears it is time for a January tradition: asking if this is finally the year Kansas doesn’t win the Big 12.
“A lot of people do have doubts about us, I would say,” Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre says. “That’s what I’ve been looking at. But it just gives us a little bit more motivation.”
For the last 10 years, Self and Kansas have won at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, which makes part of this conversation slightly humorous. This always happens, right? People doubt Kansas. People worry about the Jayhawks. Then Kansas wins anyway.
In 2006, the Jayhawks opened 1-2, including back-to-back losses against Missouri and K-State. The team started three freshmen. It won a share of the league title anyway.
Three years ago, the Jayhawks lost to Davidson at the Sprint Center leading up to Big 12 play. Former walk-on Conner Teahan was the team’s sixth man. It won the league anyway.
And then there was last year. The Jayhawks lost four times in nonconference. Again, Self was starting three freshmen. Again, the Jayhawks had questions at point guard. Again, Kansas won the league by two games.
“Even when we won it in 2008 (the year Kansas won the NCAA title), we still lost three out of five in our league over 2 1/2-week period,” Self says. “So there’s been numerous times it didn’t look very good.”
Perhaps this is the wonder of Kansas’ streak. Perhaps it’s also why it might feel crazy to expect Kansas to do anything but collect another Big 12 championship ring in early March. To bet against Kansas and Self in the Big 12 is to bet against Taylor Swift on the Billboard charts, or Tom Brady in the AFC East, or to bet against the likelihood that a meal at a Kansas City barbecue joint will leave you satisfied.
On a Friday in early January, Self stood inside Allen Fieldhouse and listened to a question about the yearly expectations that weigh on everyone around the program. The burden of the streak; the pressure to be great every night.
“If you wear a uniform and you play here, then we expect you to be good,” Self says. “I really think that’s good. I think that puts subtle pressure on people to maybe work a little harder, maybe focus a little more.
And yet, there is ample reason to suspect that this could be the year — the end of the streak. The Jayhawks lack the dominant big men of recent vintage. Their defense does not feature a true rim protector. The Big 12 may be tougher than it has ever been.
The advanced metrics — after 13 games — do not paint a promising picture. According to projections at KenPom.com — a site run by college basketball statistics maven Ken Pomeroy — the Jayhawks are projected to finish 10-8 in the Big 12. Yes, you read that right. According to advanced simulations using Pomeroy’s projections, the Jayhawks have a less than 15-percent chance to win the league. And as of Monday, No. 16 Oklahoma, No. 10 Texas and even No. 14 West Virginia had better odds of winning the Big 12.
“Our league is such a monster,” Self said. “Every coach right now is a little uptight.”
If those numbers seem low, perhaps it speaks to the Jayhawks’ statistical profile, which is an strange outlier after years of pristine numbers. In 13 games, the Jayhawks are shooting just 43.9 percent inside the three-point line. (No Self team has ever shot worse than 50.8 percent on two-point attempts.) In 13 games, the Jayhawks rank 45th in the country in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 93.0 points per 100 possessions. (That would be the worst defensive ranking of the Self era.)
The numbers are slightly skewed by Kansas’ difficult schedule, of course. And perhaps Pomeroy’s analysis cannot account for the mystique of Allen Fieldhouse or the intangibles that help teams win close games. But on Monday afternoon, Self conceded that the numbers are, indeed, alarming.
“It’s not that far off,” Self says. “We’ve certainly got a lot of room for improvement in those areas.”
Maybe in three months, the concerns of early January will fade into the background, shoulder-shrugging fodder as Kansas clinches another Big 12 championship and the college basketball words yawns. We’ve been here before.
But in the weeks before Big 12 play, Self wanted his players to think about the future, about their identity, about what it would take for the Jayhawks to keep the streak alive. For the better part of a decade in Lawrence, Kansas teams have taken the floor in January with a simple goal: Don’t be the team that lets this place down.
On that front, this season — despite the doubts and the numbers and the feeling that maybe this is the year the streak dies — is really no different.
“It’s hard to predict the future,” sophomore guard Wayne Selden says. “It’s hard to really predict what’s going to happen in the future. But we’re just going to try our best.”
Graham continues recovery — Devonte’ Graham’s recovery from a sprained right toe will continue this week with some light running and some light cutting, Self said on Monday afternoon.
Graham, a freshman point guard, has been out since Dec. 10 because of “turf toe,” an injury suffered in a victory at Georgetown. To this point, Graham’s rehab has mostly been limited to pool workouts, but Self is hopeful that Graham could return to the practice floor for certain situations later this week.
“This has just started,” Self said of the running and cutting. “But we’re going to continue that and I’m hopeful we can put him in some type of practice situation later on this week.”
Once Graham returns to practice, Self estimated that Graham could need at least a week before being ready to play limited minutes in a game.