Why can nobody ever clear the hurdle and dethrone the Kansas Jayhawks atop the Big 12 standings?
I’m not going to waste any time talking about how impressive the Jayhawks’ streak of 10, going on 11, consecutive Big 12 regular season titles is – everybody already knows that. What I am interested in, however, are the why and how elements. Why does Kansas always go on to win the league, despite the fact that there always appears to be teams that, at least on paper, seem to have what it takes to de-throne it? And how is a team going to finally end KU’s dominant run and steal an outright crown away from the Jayhawks?
Every year, people wonder if this is going to be the year when somebody besides the Jayhawks take home the outright Big 12 regular season crown. For whatever reason, KU’s challengers manage to wilt and crumple for one reason or another, and the Jayhawks make their way through an annually loaded conference by finishing at the top. I’m not completely convinced that the Jayhawks also haven’t had a bit of luck on their side with scheduling (before the Big 12 moved to a double round-robin format) and injuries, but all of that is beside the point. Why can nobody ever clear the hurdle and take down the Jayhawks?
From 2005 to 2008, the Jayhawks pieced together four consecutive Big 12 titles, and the narrative spread that Kansas was accomplishing something that’s truly rare in the sport. After winning the national championship in 2008, the Jayhawks lost all five starters, and it was thought that KU’s four-peat was about to come to an end. Nearly seven full seasons later, the Jayhawks still haven’t finished worse than first place in the league. This comes despite somebody else being selected by the coaches to win at least a share of the conference crown in five of those seasons.
#5. 2009, 14-2, outright champions
In a year in which Bill Self was voted AP National Coach of the Year, the Jayhawks were slotted third in the conference preseason poll. The coaches’ pick to win the league was Oklahoma, who began Big 12 play 11-0 before faltering down the stretch. An injury to All-American Blake Griffin plunged the Sooners to losses in three of their final five games, including a home defeat to the Jayhawks. Self was recognized for his superb performance after coaching a team with five new starters to their fifth consecutive Big 12 title.
Texas, who was slotted second in the coaches poll, ultimately was a non-factor in the Big 12 race. They finished the conference slate by going 5-6 in their last 11 games to finish in sixth place.
#6. 2010, 15-1, outright champions
The Jayhawks were voted the #1 team in the preseason AP poll, and they cruised to their sixth straight conference crown with only one loss. Kansas won the league by a whopping four full games.
#7. 2011, 14-2, outright champions
This is when the evidence begins to get interesting.
Kansas State, coming off an Elite Eight berth, received 10 of 12 first-place votes to take home the conference title. The Wildcats were given the #3 national preseason ranking, only to fall apart in January to begin 4-6 in league play. They managed to close the regular season with a six-game winning streak to finish in fourth place, but it was the Jayhawks, picked second by the coaches, who went on to win their seventh straight title. Once again, Bill Self took a team that lost its top three scorers and turned it into a league champion.
#8. 2012, 16-2, outright champions
KU tied with Texas A&M in the preseason coaches poll, but it wasn’t until December when people began to think that 2012 would be the year that the Jayhawks would finally be dethroned. Baylor began the year 17-0, and Missouri cruised to a 14-0 start. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks dropped a stunning loss at the Sprint Center to Davidson University just before Christmas, and Bill Self proclaimed that he was concerned about Kansas even making the tournament. Jack Harry infamously predicted KU to finish outside the top five in conference play, and an eighth-straight crown seemed extremely unlikely.
Baylor soon wilted after getting smashed by Kansas and Missouri twice, while the Tigers remained a factor in the league race throughout the year. They defeated Kansas to move into a first-place tie until late February, but a home loss to unranked Kansas State and a massive blown lead in the final Border War game completed Missouri’s collapse. Kansas, meanwhile, ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak to finish 16-2, and the Jayhawks would carry that momentum into the NCAA tournament, ultimately reaching the national championship game.
#9. 2013, 14-4, tied with Kansas State
2013 was the only season in the last seven years where a team has actually come close to knocking off the Jayhawks. The blueprint to dethroning KU seems simple in concept – a team can’t lose any game in which they’re favored in, and they need to get at least one victory over the Jayhawks. Failing to do both of those results in Kansas capturing another crown, and in 2013, the Kansas State Wildcats went 14-0 in the 14 conference games in which they were favored. However, a four-point home loss to Kansas proved to be major, as the Wildcats backed into a share of the crown when the Jayhawks stubbed their toe in the season finale.
The Wildcats played as close to a perfect conference season as any challenger to Kansas has done in years. They weren’t upset once all season, they lost only one home game, and yet that still wasn’t enough to end KU’s run of dominance.
#10. 2014, 14-4, outright champions
When all five Jayhawk starters departed Lawrence following 2013, their run of consecutive titles appeared vulnerable. Things looked bleaker when Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart passed up a sure-fire top five NBA draft pick to return to school, vaulting the Cowboys into a preseason top 10 ranking. They were picked to tie with the Jayhawks in the preseason coaches poll, and the Jayhawks stumbled out of the gates, dropping four of their 13 non-conference games.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, steamrolled into league play with a 12-1 record. What followed was a monumental collapse, complete with a seven-game losing streak through the heart of Big 12 play. Smart pushed a fan, the tournament became a question mark, and the Cowboys limped to an eighth-place finish. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks shook off their early-season woes and rolled to a tenth straight title, winning the league by two full games.
#11 (?) and the future
This year, with three games remaining, the Jayhawks sit atop the league by themselves. Texas was picked to win the conference in the preseason, and it currently sits in eighth place. The evidence towards teams collapsing under the pressure of being expected to win the league has popped up several times since league play began, however. After a series of impressive early-season wins, Oklahoma was considered to be Kansas’ biggest challenger for title #11 – it then lost to lowly Kansas State at home. Then it was Iowa State’s turn to give Jayhawk fans a scare, only to drop a road game to last-place Texas Tech. A February stumble by Kansas opened the door back up for the Cyclones, who entered Wednesday night with an opportunity to tie up KU with one week left. Of course, Iowa State immediately lost at home to Baylor for its first home loss to a non-Kansas team since 2012.
The evidence is overwhelming – it’s so difficult for teams to put together the formula necessary to take down the Jayhawks. Kansas is a virtual lock to win half of the games on their schedule because of Allen Fieldhouse, and they’re also a good bet for at least four or five road wins. If the Jayhawks go 14-4 and an opposing team loses just one home game, that means that just to win a share, it would have to go 6-3 on the road, with a ridiculous 7-2 mark away from home to steal the outright crown away from Kansas. In a conference as difficult from top-to-bottom as the Big 12, that’s just not going to happen.
Eventually, we know that Kansas’ run atop the league will have to end. However, it’s going to take a team getting through a murderous 18-game slate without a home loss or a road defeat against a team that they’re favored over, and even that might not be enough. It doesn’t help when each time a challenger appears primed to end KU’s run, they crumple under the pressure and the Jayhawks sneak off with yet another Big 12 crown.
It has to happen eventually, but it’s not happening this year. And when it does, it’s going to be because of a dang good team.