Kansas has won the outright Big 12 championship and its third straight league title, captured the 50th conference championship, and just won the 1,900 game in school history with a thrilling 90-86 comeback victory over Texas on Saturday. And yes, the ‘Hawks are also ranked No. 3 in the country and winners of their last eight games.
Now the real fun begins.
It’s a whole new season as KU (27-4) heads into postseason play in the Big 12 Tournament this Friday at 11:30 a.m. at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City. The Jayhawks will play the Thursday winner of No. 8 seed Iowa State vs. No. 9 Oklahoma. Kansas recently nipped OU in Norman, 67-65, on Feb. 26, and whipped the Cyclones, 89-52, two days earlier.
"The good thing is that we have played Iowa State and Oklahoma two and three games ago, so it should still be relatively fresh,” said KU coach Bill Self. “The other thing is that while they don't play alike, they do similar things offensively. I think we should work on OU's pressure and work on Iowa State's successes when we played up there (KU won 68-64 in OT) and when they played in Lawrence. The bottom line is that we're going to focus on us. I don't know who we're going to play, but we'll be prepared.”
Self has a strong message to his group as they prepare for the postseason.
"We are telling them not to be satisfied,” he said. “There was a big deal made out of us winning the league, and there should be any time you win the league, but that's not the goal. That is not the ultimate goal and now we need to shift our focus and stay hungry."
Kansas is playing its best basketball of the year, just how last year’s bunch did at this time when the ‘Hawks won 12 of 13 games heading into the postseason. KU is certainly looking like a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think our nonconference resume is pretty impressive,” Self said. “Everybody can skew the numbers to give their team the best look, but I would say winning the Big 12 Tournament would probably guarantee it.”
Even if Kansas doesn’t win the conference tournament, advancing to the finals could be enough for a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday on March 11. While KU is on a roll now, Self knows that to win the conference tournament and make a deep run in the Big Dance, his team has to improve its weaknesses.
"We don't guard the ball very well,” Self said. “D.J. Augustin (Texas point guard) and Oklahoma got the ball where they wanted off the bounce. Our block-outs can certainly improve. Against OU, we made one three-pointer, and against Texas we made 11, so we can become more consistent shooting the basketball. Of course, this late in the season, I don't think you change who you are overnight, but I certainly think we can improve in some of those areas with foul shooting being as important as any of them."
One player who has made great improvement over last season is 6-8 sophomore forward Julian Wright. He was named first-team All-Big 12, and has become one of the finest players in America. The multidimensional Wright averages 12 points and leads the team with 8.1 rebounds per game. He had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists vs. Texas on Saturday, and was selected as Big 12 Co-Player of the Week, along with Longhorn star Kevin Durant. Self has been quite pleased with Wright’s game, which truly transcends raw numbers.
"When you look at our team from a most valuable standpoint, not by point production, the defensive efforts and assignments he has drawn have been tough ones and he has done a good job there,” Self said. “His value to me is so different because he changes how teams have to play us. He's very good against the zone, is a good interior passer, and without question is our best rebounder. He's averaging 12 points a game and for a guy at his size to get 13 rebounds in a big game like Texas is very valuable. I think he's really developed. In scoring points, he's gone from eight to 12, which is a big step, but he is not going to be a prolific scorer. That's not who he is. I know the coaches and media voted him first-team in our league and that's good to see that a guy can do so many things to impact a game and it not necessarily be all about points. He's had a very solid year.”
And it could be a spectacular year for Wright and Kansas this postseason. As for the other teams in the Big 12? Well, Self hopes the conference is well-represented when the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced this Sunday.
“I don't know exactly what it is,” Self said, “but how can we have our top three teams (KU, Texas, and Texas A&M) considered top-four seeds and a team like Kansas State, with 10 conference victories, considered on the bubble? To me, that does not make much sense. I think people saying K-State is on the bubble is ridiculous. If our league doesn't get five teams in the tournament, I think that is a shame.”
With the postseason now here, Self has done everything possible to silence talk about his players leaving for the NBA after the year. That’s fine with his team, which is completely focused on finishing the season in style.
"I told our guys not to address any situations about their individual futures,” Self said. “They don't want to either because they don't know. There isn't anybody right now who knows if they'd leave. There are guys who in their minds would know that they would stay, but things happen and people get involved. We're going to enjoy all our guys as long as we have them and we hope we have them again, unless it's best for them to leave now, and if it's that time, then they should leave."
The NBA talk can wait. Now is the best time of year in college basketball. It’s conference tournament time and a new season begins on Friday. Win or go home. Survive and advance. The rest of the Big 12 will be gunning for Kansas. They’ll give the ‘Hawks their best shot. But if Kansas plays great team ball, competes hard for 40 minutes, and makes stops late in the game, Self’s bunch could win the conference tournament...and maybe even the Big Dance.
“We have learned that one-possession games will probably determine the success of our postseason,” Self said. “We have to make sure we make the most of every possession. The one thing that I like is that we've won eight in a row and we've had eight great performers in those games. We have to accept that we are a team with balance and if we are in sync, we are pretty good, but we can't get individuals off an island and think we'll play through them. We need to stay focused on what we do as opposed to what ‘I’ do and the individual things will come."