When the so-called experts voiced their opinions before the college basketball season began, they pointed to other teams, mostly Oklahoma State as a probable champion of the Big 12. The point was they felt this was the year that Kansas' mind boggling run of consecutive championships would finally come to an end.
Fast forward to Monday night and it's clear that Bill Self and the Jayhawks own the Big 12 and that's not going to change for the forseeable future, as Kansas withstood several runs by Oklahoma to win 83-75 and clinch at least share of the conference crown for the 10th straight season. Ironically, they can wrap it up outright with a win against the same Oklahoma State team that was supposed to dethrone him. After that, there will still be two game left to play.
"We've had so many good players. It's been a great run. You don't win unless you have better guys than the other guys and we've had better guys," head coach Bill Self said. "I'm thrilled to death and I'm happy a bunch of young kids are growing up. We are finding different ways to win and we are getting a little bit tougher, but we are not near as tough as we need to be – but we have become mentally tough down the stretch."
Kansas (22-6, 13-2) won the latest conquest by grinding out a flawed game that featured 44 total fouls reminiscent of game earlier this season. Oklahoma (20-8, 9-6) even led by four with 4:52 remaining, but used solid team defense and behind five players in double figures, led by Naadir Tharpe and Andrew Wiggins, surged to victory. The key sequence was a Joel Embiid block on the Sooners Ryan Spangler, followed by a back breaking three by Wiggins, who finished with 15 points an five rebounds.
"In the second half I had to be aggressive; (I was) trying to get to the basket because my shot wasn't falling early, trying to get my other teammates involved. Wayne (Selden, Jr.) found me in a good drive, and I just knocked it down," Wiggins said.
Embiid finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds to go with three blocks. Tharpe keyed the late run with 19 points and big shot after big shot. Overall, it was a fitting and encouraging end, as the Jayhawks near the most important part of the season.
"It was great. It has been a good year, when you win the league it's a good year. Now we need to go make it a great or special year," Self said.
Now, Kansas can slam the door shut on the league race by winning on the road in what was supposed to be the biggest of all Big 12 showdowns this season. A KU victory would instead serve as a coronation for a program that has accomplished a rarity in today's college basketball world, in which parity and competition nearly makes sustained excellence an impossible feat.
"We want to go in and win at Stillwater on Saturday," Self said. "There would be nothing better for us than to go down there and do something special in a juiced building on someone else's court. Then we want to back it up and have a great senior night. Then we want to go and play well at West Virginia and have as much momentum as we can going into the Big 12 Tournament."