Contrary to what Jack Harry may think, winning the Big 12 every year is indeed a birthright for Kansas fans. The last time the Jayhawks didn’t win at least a share of the regular season conference title, Frank Mason was 10 years old. Year after year, the rest of a difficult league beats up on one another while the Jayhawks skate on by at the top, winning the Big 12 by dominating play at home and doing just enough away from Allen Fieldhouse.
This year, as Kansas chases a 12th consecutive Big 12 title, things have gotten off to a shaky start.
The Jayhawks have three conference losses in January for the first time since the early Roy Williams years. As always, Kansas has held serve at home, but lackluster road play and Oklahoma’s emergence as a legitimate threat to its run of titles has put KU in an unfamiliar position through the first eight conference games. The Jayhawk fanbase, which expects nothing less than a conference crown and a Final Four caliber team every year, is struggling to keep perspective on the situation.
Which, if we’re being honest, hasn’t changed – the Jayhawks are really good. Really good.
Despite the rough start to conference play, Kansas is by no means out of the conference race. In fact, it now gets as much of a breather as anyone will get in conference play. Its next four games (vs. Kentucky, vs. Kansas State, at TCU, and vs. West Virginia) are all contests in which the Jayhawks will emerge victorious. Few, if any other Big 12 teams, will also go 4-0 over its next four games. It hasn’t been a pleasant last couple of weeks, but Kansas now gets the opportunity to reset itself a bit by playing three of the next four in the comfy confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The lone road game is at the worst team in the conference. Anything less than 4-0, even considering the team’s recent struggles, is almost inconceivable at this point.
Should the Jayhawks win each of their next four games, they’ll be right back at the top of the Big 12 in time for a big road game at the Sooners. Even if Kansas loses that contest, the back-end of its conference schedule gives KU an opportunity to finish the regular season strong. Compare that to last year, when the Jayhawks limped into the Big 12 tournament having lost four of their final nine conference games.
One more thing: if the Jayhawks do slip up one more time than we’re expecting them to, they may go 13-5 and finish second in the Big 12. As unfortunate as it’d be to see the Big 12 streak end, fans must keep the realization that there are many more important things to be obtained this season. Should KU finish 13-5, which seems like the most likely outcome at this point, that would be an 8-2 end to conference play. Re-finding the spark that this team had just weeks ago when it was ranked #1 in the nation is the most important thing for this year’s team.
A couple of weeks ago, I thought that this Jayhawk team was capable of winning the national championship. I definitely think that by tournament time, Kansas will be one of the five favorites to cut down the nets. From a personnel perspective, this is still Bill Self’s best team since 2010-11. It has the talent and the ability to be a terrific squad.
Frank Mason will figure out his turnover woes in the next few games. The rotating logjam at the center position will clear up a bit for Bill Self. And Kansas will be back in the driver’s seat for, minimum, a top-two seed in the NCAAs.
For the record, I still think that Kansas finds a way to win a share of the Big 12 title this year. People need to remember that if they don’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean that KU isn’t good. The Big 12 is as good from top-to-bottom as any league I can ever remember seeing in any season.
As for the tournament, I think that this team will put together a run that the last three Kansas teams could not. The Jayhawks are an experienced, balanced team. By the time they’re clicking again, there won’t be many teams people would pick against them on a neutral floor. The next four games will go smoothly, and after this stretch is over, fans will be back on board with Kansas as a Final Four-caliber team.
The Jayhawks may very well lose the Big 12 this year. I don’t think they will, but even if they do, that doesn’t mean that they’re destined for a first weekend exit in the NCAAs. By the time March rolls around, Kansas will have fans sucked back in, convinced that it’s going to make a run to the Final Four. And if KU does put it together and click in the tournament, it won’t surprise anybody who kept perspective during a 2-3 skid in mid-January.