"Big 12 Champs."
It's a cheer you hear in the huddle every single day before Kansas leaves the floor after practice. It leaves no doubt where the focus lies for the first 3+ months of the season. The Jayhawks never look ahead and they once again have at least a share of a seventh straight Big 12 regular season title.
"I don't know if it feels different because regardless of where we were preseason ranked that's what our goal is every year is to put ourselves in position to win the league," said KU Head Coach Bill Self. "We say Big 12 Champs everyday."
"We focus on winning the Big 12 every year. It's our main goal. We say it after practice," said senior Tyrel Reed referring to the "Big 12 Champs" cheer. "The coaches instill that anything else is subpar."
It's certainly working. In a day and age where conference titles aren't celebrated as much as they should be Self has managed to do it seven straight years in a major conference, something even he labeled, "amazing."
Yes, it is a remarkable feat that will likely not earn the praise it deserves outside Kansas State lines. All we hear from the national media are the criticisms that there is no true round-robin play and that the regular season does not produce a true champion. That argument will not exist next season when the Big 12 (or Big 10b) goes to true round robin play. Without question it will be the toughest this conference has ever been. But in the meantime, if you beat the people on your conference schedule more than everyone else in a league as deep as the Big 12 for seven straight years it is a big deal.
In fact to find a dominant stretch like this in a major conference you probably have to go back to the 60's and 70's when UCLA did it. I didn't research it but off the top of my head I sure can't think of a team that's done this or even come close.
Ask a coach and he'll tell you each one is special and unique and this title comes packed with side stories including losing three NBA draft picks (Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry, and Sherron Collins). There is no rebuilding at Kansas. Self finds a way to get it done and never skips a beat.
"There's been so much turnover in different teams during that period of time," said Self referring to the players that have come and gone during these last seven titles. "It's a testimony to guys recruiting good players and having guys that can step in immediately."
This title is also unique because of the adversity this team has fought through. This hasn't been a smooth ride for a team that's ranked second in the nation and dropped just two games all season.
There have been suspensions (Josh Selby, Mario Little, Elijah Johnson, and Tyshawn Taylor), injuries (Tyrel Reed, Thomas Robinson, and Travis Releford), and questions about the character of a couple of this squad's stars (Markieff and Marcus Morris). Just a couple of weeks ago it looked like a tall order for Kansas to get to this point. Texas looked dominant, Kansas looked vulnerable at times and was demolished in Manhattan provoking criticism about this Jayhawk team.
"The message after the K-State game was 'Hey, it's not over. They're not going to run the table. The league's too good. But we gotta get some help and if we stub our toe there's not that much help available,'" Self said.
Kansas knew it couldn't control what Texas did. Knowing they were facing a two-game deficit, they just put their heads down and went to work. The Longhorns have hit the skids but Kansas has played very well since the K-State debacle. The Jayhawks worried only about what they could control and now they find themselves staring at the possibility of winning the title outright.
Self has been harping on the defense in this team and since the embarrassing loss against Kansas State he's had their attention and the defense has improved. Kansas was able to win on the road Saturday and Wednesday against Texas A&M the Hawks slugged it out and won a muddied up game. A game that could happen in the NCAA Tournament.
"We've been a pretty team and I thought today we were much more equipped to win a game with no rhythm," Self said. "That was good for us."
"I thought that we really buckled down at the end," said junior Marcus Morris. "We started guarding when we really needed it and we got stops and rebounds."
On senior night knowing another title would at least be shared there was no celebrating in the Kansas locker room. No hugging the latest Big 12 trophy to find its way to Lawrence because there is more work to be done and Kansas isn't really in a sharing mood.
"I don't really think you should celebrate," Self stated. "We tied it but we still have another game so we have a chance to win it outright. We'd rather do it ourselves than have to hope for help from somebody else."
"It's a pretty good accomplishment, but we still have business to take care of Saturday because we don't like sharing championships," said senior Brady Morningstar. "Don't get me wrong, it's very exciting to be a part of a streak like this."
"We're definitely not happy sharing it," Marcus Morris admitted. "We want to win it outright every year. It's going to be a tough game for us at Missouri, but we're going to try to get it done."
"In all honesty, I don't think anybody would like to share if they don't have to. I think in this particular situation it's good to be selfish. We don't have anything against Texas personally, but we'd just assume the trophy resided only in Lawrence as opposed to Lawrence and Austin."
Even if there wasn't a conference title at stake this is game on the home floor of a bitter rival there would be plenty of motivation. Missouri has just one road win but is undefeated in Columbia. It won't be easy. Celebrating a conference title with your home fans is fun but going into the hostile arena of your rival, winning a game you need for an outright title, and walking out proudly a champion, that's priceless.
"It's Missouri," said Self when asked if playing Mizzou or a conference title was more motivation. "We could play shirts and skins with nobody in the stands, and I think our guys would be excited to play. That's probably the primary thing, but also the chance to win the league outright is a big factor."
So for the Jayhawks its a chance for a title, a chance to defend better than the last time these two teams met when KU gave up 86 points, and a chance to show the nation that they can go into a raucous atmosphere and be poised enough to come away with a victory. It's a chance to play yet another truly meaningful game in March.
"The last time we played a rival on the road, it didn't go too well," said Tyshawn Taylor who will again come off the bench against Missouri Saturday. "We have to come out and be better than when we were at Kansas State. I think we're going to be well-prepared and ready for their pressure. We know the atmosphere is going to be crazy, so we have to be ready to respond to it."
One thing's for sure at the end of practice Friday you'll hear one thing, "Big 12 Champs."