Saturday’s demolition of Kentucky was the final non-conference game of the season for Kansas, and there’s a reason for that. According to head coach Bill Self, he learned a painful lesson about non-conference scheduling last January when Kansas was battered by the weather conditions and a fired up Villanova squad.
“Last season we made a mistake scheduling Villanova (83-62 loss) a third of the way through our conference season. I don’t like that. I didn’t like that. We did that for the wrong reasons --for television. But I do like to have the non-conference done before conference play starts. Even though other teams are opened up, I still think its good timing for us to get it done before we open up.”
It was a 21-point loss that really wasn’t even that close and it’s a mistake Self is not willing to make more than once. So Kansas’ ends the non-conference tilt with a bang and now the Jayhawks’ focus lies squarely on contending for another conference title something that Self believes should be the goal at Kansas every year.
“That’s part of something that I think the goal at Kansas should be and that’s to win a championship regardless of how young you are, that’s gotta be a goal. Today’s game was an important to help us with that goal but I think the middle season for us begins Wednesday,” said Self after the Kentucky win.
Again Self has a title contender in Lawrence but this team is very different from his first two Jayhawk teams. Years one and two featured a battle-tested, experienced roster. This year it’s a team filled with freshmen and sophomores – some who have yet to experience a true road game. The third year coach is fully aware of the differences between coaching a team of grizzled veterans and ripe bunch of youngsters. The learning curve is a bit slower, and there are just some things you cannot do, at least not yet, with this bunch.
“(You can’t) change things. We’re having to do a lot of things through repetition…You probably take for granted execution out of timeouts. If you want to do something different or just draw something up there’s probably not as much going on this year with that because we haven’t carried the timeouts as far as changes that were made to the court as well as we could,” stated Self.
But this Kansas team has won six straight and heads to conference play on a role. So are we finally seeing this talented group starting to gel?
“We’re playing better, gelling may be a little bit of a reach but we’re certainly playing better. And a lot of that is schedule and coming home for those particular games and having some good practice time. And also our rotation is still pretty long but we’re figuring out who we can play in certain situations and sticking with that a lot more so than we did early when we were just playing everybody in any situation,” said Self prior to the Kentucky contest Saturday.
Though this team is not quite where Self thought they would be at this stage – he believes the best is yet to come.
“To be real candid I would’ve thought this past August that we might be a little bit ahead of where we are now with our young guys. But the thing I like most about them is the potential might be even more so that what I saw back in August. It’s just a new deal and a new mindset for them and they’re doing pretty well but with expectations being so high I think that even coaches think they can just step right in and this is new for all those guys and they’re adjusting pretty well now and I think this second part of the season you’ll see a much more comfortable, talented group than what you saw early in the season,” said an optimistic Self.
The door is open for Kansas because the preseason top picks have shown their flaws. Texas was annihilated by Duke, and embarrassed at home by Tennessee. Oklahoma lost to Villanova, West Virginia and Nebraska in its Big 12 opener. That being said, the Longhorns look like they’re finally healthy and gathering a full head of steam. Oklahoma State lost a couple of tough games to ranked teams in Boston College and Gonzaga. But they also lost to Northwestern State and dropped their conference-opener at Missouri.
“Everybody (in our league) has shown a chink in the armor so to speak. But when you look at it I still think Texas has the premiere talent in our league. But everybody has shown that they can play very, very well and everybody has shown through youth, or for whatever reasons, that they can not play at that level consistently so I think it makes for a more wide open race than before,” Self continued. “ In my first few years I think everybody going in had projected who would be the best 3-4 teams in the league. I think right now if you were going to re-poll the coaches -- they could give you 8 or 10 different answers as to who the best 3 or 4 teams are. I still feel from a consistent standpoint Texas, Oklahoma, and then maybe even Oklahoma State -- I think probably though there have been ups and downs have probably performed to the point where you’d think these guys are going to be really, really strong come conference time.”
All three teams will be a handful to deal with and are only going to get better. Though the top tier teams haven’t played flawless basketball, this is still a power conference that will be well-represented in the NCAA tournament. Self refutes the idea that the Big 12 is having a down year.
“I won’t go as far as saying it’s down because I know the quality of players in the league. I would say our Big 12 league will play better against each other than they did non-conference because we are a young league and trying to find ourselves and they will be found during conference play. People that say we’re down I think you could understand why some would say that based on some losses that our league has taken but I don’t think anybody’s going to want to play our league later on in the season when these young guys develop,” proclaimed Self.
And Kansas is included in that group of teams that will improve throughout conference play and will be a force to be reckon by the time conference play comes to an end.
The key to winning the Big 12 this season will be notching road wins. Most teams can hold serve at home but which team will be able steal some wins on the road? Kansas has yet to play a true road game, and Kansas State, Nebraska and Missouri are winless on the road so far.
I still believe Texas will win the league and I still believe the Longhorns have Final Four talent. But I also think the winner of the Big 12 could have four to five losses. It’s that wide open.