Yes, this is a big one at 11 a.m. on CBS. With No. 3 KU (26-4) entering the showdown at 13-2 in conference play and No. 15 Texas (22-7) at 12-3, the Jayhawks certainly don’t want to lose and share the conference title. No, they’re greedy. They want the championship all to themselves.
Rest assured Jayhawk faithful, the players will be ready for the biggest game of the season and arguably the biggest game of their lives.
“We’ll be excited to play Saturday,” Bill Self said at his Thursday press conference. “It’s one of those deals where you can see the end and everybody’s energies will be focused and challenged to just one particular game and nobody will be looking ahead. I see great energy from both teams.”
History is on KU’s side this Saturday. Kansas hasn’t lost a final home game in Allen Fieldhouse since 1983, when the ‘Hawks fell to Colorado, 60-58, in Ted Owens’ fourth to last game as Jayhawk head coach. His final game that season was a loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament on March 2. Leroy Combs led the Cowboys with 26 points and 15 rebounds, followed by Matt Clark with 23 points. A young sophomore reserve guard by the name of Bill Self chipped in three points.
That loss to Oklahoma State spelled doom for Owens, who was fired and replaced by Larry Brown. Two years later, Brown brought in Self as a volunteer coach. And as every Jayhawk fan knows, that’s the ties which helped bring Self back home to Lawrence as KU head coach in 2003. Now in his fourth year at Kansas, Self surely knows how loud Allen Fieldhouse can be. However, while it may not be senior day on Saturday in the Phog (except for two senior managers’ last home game), you can bet the legends and magic of Chamberlain, Manning, Lovellette, and Stallworth will come alive and Allen Fieldhouse will be rocking like never before.
"It will be a fabulous atmosphere,” Self said. “I hope it rivals some of the best game atmospheres since I've been here. Three games stand out to me: Michigan State my first year, Oklahoma State two years ago and the Georgia Tech game two years ago. I have to believe our fans will be just as excited, if not more, for this game for a lot of reasons. It's our last game, we're playing for an outright Big 12 championship, there's a lot at stake outside of that and we're playing an opponent —and one guy in particular (Kevin Durant) — who our fans would like to see play.
“I won't guarantee this, but I don't think Durant will make a second trip back to Allen Fieldhouse,” Self said about the likelihood the freshman sensation will turn pro after this year. “It should be a lot of fun."
KU is facing a franchise player in Durant and a Texas team coming off a thrilling 98-96 double overtime victory over Texas A&M on Wednesday. A&M (12-3 in Big 12) was previously tied with Kansas for first place in the conference with only two losses. But Texas had too much talent, too much Durant (30 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks). When you talk Texas, all conversation turns to Durant, an incredible talent who leads the Big 12 at 24.9 points per game and 11.5 rebounds. Yes, he’s also No. 1 in Big 12 play in blocked shots (1.6 bpg) and upped his scoring average to a whopping 28.7 ppg. And you say big men can’t shoot free throws. Well, this 6-10 prodigy is shooting 80.1 percent from the charity stripe.
Self, who picked Durant as the preseason Big 12 Player of the year, said the freshman has had as good a season as anybody ever had in college basketball.
“When you look at since freshmen became eligible (1973), who has even rivaled what he’s done?” Self commented. “And then you look at the great years that individuals have had — Danny (Manning at KU) as a senior, David Robinson as a senior (at Navy), Elton Brand as a junior (at Duke), Jason Williams as a junior (at Duke), Christian Laettner as a junior (at Duke). You can go through and list them all. Other than winning the last game, those (guys’) years wouldn't be better than what this guy has done this year. He's 6-10 and a fabulous shooter, a great free throw shooter, he's the best rebounder in the league and he leads the league in blocked shots. He's just really, really good and he's not even 19. He's a joke."
So with all this talent, was KU ever involved in Durant’s recruitment?
“Well, we sent him a questionnaire and he never returned it,” Self said, smiling, “so I don’t think we were ever in there very strong.”
The reporters in Hadl Auditorium laughed. But Self knows guarding Durant will be no laughing matter come Saturday.
“There’s a lot of things you can try to do, and we may have to try them all,” Self said. “Just looking at it on paper, if he matches up as the four man, our four man naturally is Julian (6-8 Wright). You got to put a pretty agile guy on him because he can step out from 25 (feet) and make you pay. So I’d say one of our taller, more athletic guys will get the assignment the majority of time.”
And the talent doesn’t just stop with Durant. Texas has one of the finest point guards in the land in D.J. Augustin, who averages 14.8 points and 6.6 assists per game. Sophomore guard A.J. Abrams is the team’s second-leading scorer at 15 ppg. The ‘Horns lead the Big 12 in scoring (82.8 ppg) and rank second to Kansas in rebounds (40.4 rpg).
Self praised the job Texas coach Rick Barnes has done this season.
“He’s done a great job,” Self said. “Their team is even younger than our team was last year. And last year, we started three freshmen and two sophomores. They’re starting four freshmen and a sophomore. They can really score the ball. You get into a scoring contest with them, and they’re going to be hard to beat because they have so many weapons. He’s got those guys playing tough and confident. He’s done a fabulous job, as good a job as anyone in our league has done for sure.”
This battle vs. Texas isn’t just for an outright Big 12 title for Kansas, the game is a must win if KU hopes to have a chance at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And with March now here, seeding is on the minds of coaches throughout the nation.
"If I said I wasn't thinking about it, I would be lying,” Self said. “I think every coach is anxious to find out. I don't think there is much difference between a one and a two seed, except for maybe program exposure. I don't know what we are. I think there is a great chance we can help ourselves by playing well Saturday and next week (in Big 12 Tournament) and conversely, we can really hurt ourselves quite a bit by not finishing strong. We have a lot to play for, but if you had told me after the Texas A&M game (loss vs. Aggies in Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 3) that we'd be in this position, we're really going to have to turn it up a notch, and we have for the most part."
Yes, aside from his team’s play in the second half of KU’s 67-65 win over Oklahoma on Monday night, Self believes the ‘Hawks are “playing our best ball now.” Kansas has won seven straight and 18 of its last 20 games. The fact KU seems to be peaking now shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Self’s teams over the years at Tulsa and Illinois rose to the challenge in March as well with both teams advancing to the Elite Eight (Tulsa in 2000 and Illinois in 2001).
Sure, Self feels the pressure. And the nationally televised battle with Texas on Saturday morning will be a hot pressure cooker where only the strong survive — both on the court and on the coaching sidelines. But yet, the Edmond, Okla., native would have life — and March — no other way.
“The stakes are so high and everything is magnified,” Self said. “I also think it is the best time of the year. Coaches love it. I love to play games for high stakes and if you're a competitor, this is the best time."