Big 12 North Preparing KU For Disappointment?

Ever since the Kansas Jayhawks followed up a hard-to-swallow loss to Texas A&M with blowout wins over a slew of Big 12 North opponent, all I've heard is how the team is on a roll and seems to be peaking at the right time.

If the next two weeks play out as records and history would seem to indicate, it looks be more of the same.

KU will absolutely drill Iowa State this Saturday. Last time these two teams played, Iowa State played chuck and duck while a Kansas team was trying to figure out how to play together. That won’t be an issue this time around.

Oklahoma will give KU a good game next Monday night, but if you thought KU struggled to score last year, you haven’t seen OU struggle this year. Some nights, you want someone to yell, “First team to 50 wins!” I think KU wins by a dozen.

Yes, Texas should give the Jayhawks a tough game in Lawrence. Depending on whether superstar freshman Kevin Durant decides to go off for 50 or just settles for 30, it should be close one. The Horns looked plenty good in their blowout of Texas Tech, but I just can’t see the young, defense-optional Longhorns beating Kansas at home. With nearly a week to prepare, I like the ‘Hawks chances.

Finally, barring a total breakdown, KU will win their Friday tournament game and stay in the hunt for a #1-seed in the NCAA tournament – I don’t care what Mike DeCoursey thinks. Maybe they’ll stay in the Midwest, depending on what Bucky Badger and Brutus Buckeye do this weekend and the rest of the way. And that might well mean a trip to the Kansas-friendly confines of Chicago and St. Louis.

Or does it?

I certainly don’t expect another first-round faceplant this season. Of course, I didn’t expect them the last two seasons, either, but this season’s palpably different.

The Bucknell loss was the result of one coach’s players playing for someone else, a coach some of them never fully trusted.

The Bradley ugliness was a case study in what talented-but-inexperienced teams often do the first time they play in the NCAA tourney, particularly against an experienced team, midmajor or not. By the time the young Jayhawks had peeled themselves off the ceiling of the Palace at Auburn Hills, they were halfway through dessert at the postgame meal.

The difference? The 2006-07 edition of the Jayhawks team has bought into what Bill Self sells and now has experience to go along with talent. This team should contend for a trip to the Dirty South and a national championship. I just don’t think they will.

For the 10th time in 11 years, Kansas has rolled through the Big XII conference like Gen. Sherman through Atlanta or Martha Stewart through menopause. I anticipate the Jayhawks finishing the conference regular season 14-2, including a perfect 10-0 against perennial North powers Kansas State, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa State and Missouri.

To make those wins even less lustrous (as if that were possible), four of those teams were led by first-year coaches and, for most of the season, had no idea what they were doing. The fifth, well, just had no idea what they were doing.

Three conference teams are locks for the NCAA tournament as I write this: Kansas, Texas A&M and Texas. Inexplicably, Oklahoma State is still in the hunt for the fourth and probably final tournament spot for the conference, along with Texas Tech and Kansas State. Those teams seem to control their own destiny.

One of these things is not like the others.

With the wisdom and hindsight of old age, I’ve decided all the energy I expended being mad at Billy Packer and Dick Vitale for trashing the Big XII Conference all those years was wasted. They were right.

The Jayhawks would be better off playing in the ACC. Maybe even the PAC 10. I know: every conference’s bottom-feeders are bad. It’s not the bottom-feeders I’m worried about, though.

If you’re leading a 12-team conference, the teams that get you ready for March are teams five through eight: those resilient teams that never go away. These are teams that know they’re in the NIT, but they still watch the selection Sunday specials, hoping to get a break.

As part of the North Division, KU doesn’t have those types of competitive also-rans to play night in and night out. Instead, the Jayhawks settle for their once-a-year one shot at pesky-but-not-great teams like Oklahoma and Texas Tech – teams that will hurt you bad if you don’t come to play.

Meanwhile, the Jayhawks can hang a 26-point loss on Iowa State or go into the most hostile Bramlage Coliseum with their B-minus game and win by nine, all the while waiting for the other North schools – practically pleading with them – to catch up. And soon.

(Note to myself: Call Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn in a couple of weeks and remind him to hire a basketball coach. If necessary, remind him Colorado has a basketball team.)

If Kansas were in the ACC, the ‘Hawks would win a conference title every third year and finish second or third the off years. Of course, there’d be the occasional fourth-place finish in those years when Maryland or Georgia Tech shows up.

Come March, however, fighting through regular season games with the likes of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Virginia would have KU sitting at a very respectable 23-9 going into the tournament but far more battle-tested and ready to overcome an eight-point deficit with 3:42 remaining against a good team.

This year’s Jayhawk squad is arguably the most talented KU team ever. In the NCAA tournament, though, talent doesn’t always win; sometimes, an absolute refusal to lose gets it done. That attitude can bridge even the widest talent gaps in March. Villanova fans sure know it. Kansas fans should know it; after all, we’ve been on both sides of it (see 1988 and 1997).

I’d almost guarantee that the ‘Hawks will run into a rough shooting night against a team that’s less talented but grittier, tougher, meaner. Players aren’t born that way; they’re made. They’re forged in the heat of narrow conference wins and losses and by fighting back from six-point deficits with two minutes left.

One of Kansas coach Bill Self’s basic canons of coaching is, “Teams really don’t come together until they’ve been through some stuff.”

Frankly, when I watch the rest of the Big XII North, I don’t see a lot of “stuff” that will benefit  the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament. Even more so than usual, it looks like the Jayhawks are on their own this postseason.

Editor's note: Article refreshed 2/21/2007


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