“Winning the league will have a lot to do with the brackets when they come out in a couple of Sundays,” Self said at his press conference on Thursday. “A goal of ours every year is to win the league. We've been talking about that as a goal since day one, so I can't see them forgetting about that and moving on to something else. I don't think that will happen at all."
Iowa State (14-13, 5-8) comes to Lawrence for a 5 p.m. tipoff after beating Colorado, 55-53, Wednesday night in Ames. The Cyclones, who rallied from a 15-point deficit, have won two of their last three games (three of last six) after suffering a four-game losing streak from Jan. 17-Jan. 31. Iowa State is led by 6-2 junior guard Mike Taylor at 16.5 points per game, followed by 6-7 freshman forward Wesley Johnson, who averages 12.1 points and 8.3 rebounds. Johnson has already racked up the most double-doubles by a Cyclone rookie in school history.
The Jayhawks barely beat Iowa State (68-64 in OT) in their last matchup back on Jan. 13 in Hilton Coliseum. Taylor paced ISU with 23 points on seven of 23 field-goal shooting, while KU center Sasha Kaun led the Jayhawks with 13 points. KU didn’t play that well and shot just 41.9 percent.
For Self, that game feels like ancient history.
“Even though it was only a month and half, it seems like a long time ago and a lot of games have happened since then,” Self said. “I think we're a better team than when we played them the first time. I think we were lucky to win. I thought they controlled the game for the most part and got it in a style that gave them the best chance and limited fastbreak opportunities and limited possessions. I know that we've got to guard and rebound and keep doing the things we've been doing in order to look good, because that's the biggest reason we've played better lately."
KU will have to make due without starting junior point guard Russell Robinson on Saturday. Robinson suffered an injury in practice on Wednesday when he sprained the bottom of his foot after "he fell down and a player fell on top of him.” Self said Robinson is currently “less than 50-50” for ESPN's Big Monday showdown with Oklahoma in Norman on Feb. 26, but believes the New York native will be available after that contest.
“It hurts our team, no question,” Self said. “We've got enough guys and our bench will have to step up and do a good job in his absence. We can play Julian (Wright) on the perimeter some. It certainly limits the bodies we can throw at people in certain game situations and with foul problems. I like having Russell out there. Russell does so many things that don't show up. He gives us toughness and a presence. He's been on a roll lately. His assist-to-turnover ratio lately has been terrific. He was probably playing as well as he played all year, so it's a blow. He's a leader and he will be missed. I know guys will step up and fill the void, and play well in his absence. Everybody on this team will be disappointed that he's not able to play."
So this means freshman sensation Sherron Collins will get the starting nod. Collins has become one of the best freshman players in the country, and is now averaging 10 points in just 21.5 minutes per game. The 5-11 point guard is also shooting a scorching 52.6 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point land. He led the Jayhawks with 20 points vs. the Wildcats.
Self knows Collins is ready for prime time and some big minutes.
“He started a couple games this year, so I think he'll be fine,” Self said. “I don't think he's hung up on that (starting) at all. I think he's hung up on playing hard and winning."
Winning is something KU has been doing with frequency. The 'Hawks are one of the hottest teams in America these days and winners of their last 18 of 20 games. After losing a 69-66 heartbreaker to Texas A&M on Feb. 3, Kansas has won five straight games, including four blowout victories and a hard fought 71-62 win over K-State last Monday in Manhattan.
The Jayhawks are playing their best basketball of the year nearing March and becoming a closer unit every day. So was there a defining moment that turned things around?
"The A&M loss certainly stung pretty hard. I thought we regrouped from that pretty well,” Self said. “We'll look back at that loss at the end of the season as a positive thing that happened to us, but I can't quite say that yet. But that would probably be the one game to me."
Another positive recently is sophomore guard Mario Chalmers’ play. He seems primed for a late season breakout after scoring in double figures the last two games against K-State and Nebraska. Chalmers, who had been in a scoring drought, led Kansas with 17 points vs. the Wildcats.
“Mario hadn't played bad, he just didn't score,” Self said. “For him to come out and give us, I think 12 in the first half (vs. K-State), and two of the shots he had made were shots when Kansas State had momentum. He's poised, he's confident. He likes the ball in his hands. And sometimes you shoot, and you just don't make them. I don't think that will affect him at all. He made some really good plays driving into the lane.”
Self admits he’s even been surprised over Chalmers’ great ability to score these last two seasons.
“He came in as a point guard and we're playing him as a combo guard,” Self said. “If he stays at Kansas for all four years, he's going to be a 1,600 to 1,800 point scorer for us. That's pretty good at Kansas."
Yes, that would put Chalmers in elite company as one of the top 10 or 11 scorers in KU history. (Kevin Pritchard ranks No. 10 all time with 1,692 career points and Darnell Valentine is fifth with 1,821 points.) But that’s down the line. All Chalmers and Self are focused on now is Iowa State and continuing the team’s strong play down the stretch for a third straight Big 12 title.
“We've put ourself in a position that we can't stub our toe again,” Self said, “but at least we control our own destiny."