LAWRENCE, Kan. — There was no Facebook the last time Kansas missed out on the Big 12 men’s basketball championship. It was called “Thefacebook” then, one word, and it was only available at Harvard. There was no Twitter. Hurricane Katrina had not landed. The Harry Potter series had only reached its third movie: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Jayhawks have won the Big 12 championship for the 12th straight year. Twelve straight years! They wrapped up the title with what has become a typical February stretch of dominance, an eight-game winning streak that included three spectacular road victories (at Oklahoma, Baylor and rival Kansas State). The home victories are no surprise, the Jayhawks have won 94 of 99 conference games at Allen Fieldhouse since this crazy streak began. Their home conference winning percentage in the last 12 years (94.9 percent) is higher than Steph Curry’s career free throw percentage (90.2).
Twelve regular season conference championships in a row is an achievement so odd and mind-blowing that nobody quite knows what to make of it. On the one hand, it’s historic. Only the UCLA Bruins of a very different time won more conference titles in a row; the Bruins won 13 straight, 10 of them under John Wooden. So, yes, this is clearly a notable accomplishment.
On the other hand, let’s be honest, these are regular season conference titles. Who keeps track of those? Who cares? College basketball is a tournament game. A college basketball season is much like the Daytona 500 where restrictor plates limit the cars’ power and keeps everyone bunched up for the long part of the race. This unavoidably leads to some crashes, some interesting strategies, a few rivalries and, mostly, cars following each other around lap after lap. But like we saw this year, it often leads to the wild final laps and often crazy, incredible, heart-stopping finishes.
Nobody cares who leads the most laps at Daytona. It’s all about the checkered flag.
That’s college basketball, too. You will have some January and February clashes, some interesting strategies, a few rivalries, but mostly it feels like warm-up basketball. The real season is March Madness.
In that context, what does Kansas’ streak mean? Everybody appreciates that it is amazing, but beyond that, few are very interested. Even Kansas fans are so lax about the achievement that every year Bill Self finds himself giving some version of the same speech: “This is a big deal! … Don’t take this for granted! … Someday this streak will end and everyone will look back and realize just how amazing it is.”
Kansas’ journey to the Big 12 title this year is illustrative of why it does matter. Yes, March Madness is fun and it gives us a great storyline, but it doesn’t necessarily reward excellence. A good team with a hot three weeks can win it all. A great team with an injury or an off-shooting night can lose before the madness begins to bubble. That’s the way we like it, but Kansas’ streak describes a different kind of brilliance, and this year has been perhaps the best example of that brilliance. Everyone knows it has been a crazy college basketball season. Nobody can stay at No. 1. There have been so many upsets that it’s wrong to even call them upsets. As Self says, there are probably 25 teams that can go into the NCAA Tournament knowing that, with a good run, they can win it all.
The big difference in 2015-16 seems to be that freshmen have slid into a secondary role in the national story. Freshmen have dominated the sport the last few years, not only during the season, but in the NBA draft after the season. And the second part of that equation won’t change this year: Freshmen will again be the focal point of the draft. It’s all but assured that LSU freshman Ben Simmons will be the first pick, and Duke freshman Brandon Ingram will probably go second.
Those two excellent California freshmen, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both look like lottery picks. Maryland freshman Diamond Stone, UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman, and Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson could go in the lottery, too. Some NBA scouts are very high on Kansas freshman Cheick Diallo, who has started once this year and averages three points per game. There are some mock drafts out there that have Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere getting taken in the lottery even though he has been benched by coach John Calipari because of his deficient defense and rebounding.
But the freshmen this year have not had as huge an impact on the college game, at least so far. Simmons’ LSU team at the moment looks to be on the wrong side of the tournament bubble. Ingram’s Duke squad has uncharacteristically bounced in and out of the Top 25. California, with those two super freshmen, is having one of the weirdest years in memory, with a 17-0 record at home and a 3-8 record away — a record that was even worse until a couple of recent road victories. Kentucky, as mentioned, has struggled to develop Labissiere, the No. 1 recruit in the 2015 class according to Rivals.
Self’s team at Kansas has also shifted. In the last few years, the Jayhawks’ Big 12 championship teams were consistently sparked by one-and-done freshmen like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Ben McLemore, Josh Selby, Xavier Henry and Kelly Oubre.
But this year’s team is built around senior Perry Ellis, who seems to have been at Kansas since Danny Manning played. Junior Frank Mason runs the team and another junior, Wayne Selden, is perhaps the team’s most important player — when he’s shooting well, the Jayhawks are pretty tough to beat. In other words, this is a team of upperclassmen, like something from another time.
And the craziest part is that, as you look around college basketball, it seems like just about every top team is being led by juniors and seniors.
“It’s a throwback year for sure,” Self says. “I mean, you obviously have a couple of guys that could leave after one year, but everything else is all about the upperclassmen. It’s all about the team. It used to be, you would have a big game coming up and freshmen were the marquee figures leading up to the game, which I think is fine. But now you don’t have that. Now everything’s focused on a guy who’s a four-year junior or a senior, it’s pretty unbelievable how much of a shift we’re seeing.”
The shift is everywhere. Four of No. 1 Villanova’s top five scorers are juniors and seniors. Virginia’s top four scorers are also upperclassmen and seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gil lead the way. Oklahoma has three seniors carrying the team, led by Buddy Hield, who is all but certain to sweep the national player of the year awards. Iowa’s starting five are upperclassmen and includes four seniors. Two of North Carolina’s top three scorers are seniors. Michigan State seniors Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes lead another terrific Spartans team. And so on. And so on.
Sure, there are a couple of youngish teams in the mix — Maryland and Xavier are both led by sophomores, for instance — but this year has a 1985 sort of vibe to it.
This has led many to say that the overall quality of college basketball is down this year. As mentioned, there isn’t a dominant team; there has been a revolving door at No. 1 in the rankings (No. 1 Villanova lost this week and will probably be the latest to drop out of the top spot, making way for Kansas). But Self says the quality of basketball is as good as it has ever been, maybe even better. There have been numerous memorable games, like the Kansas-Oklahoma triple-overtime classic at Allen Fieldhouse (that set a Big Monday Big 12 ratings record for ESPN).
“I think one thing that is a little bit different is that you have a lot of experience,” Self says. “Look, I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t try hard. But freshmen sometimes don’t understand what it really takes to win and really be successful. That’s something you have to work on all the time.
“I do think that there’s a care level that exists more when you put in four years in the weight room, four years of being chewed out, four years of crying together, four years of getting your heart broken together. I do think there’s a care level that exists with those guys, and it raises everybody’s level.”
If you had to pinpoint one thing that has made Self’s teams so consistently great through the years, it is probably this: He has a knack of balancing his teams. Self has understood that to win over the last decade, you have to keep bringing in and developing those special talents that will only be with the team for one year. Nobody has done this better than John Calipari, of course, but Self has held his own.
At the same time, though, he has continued to build the rest of his teams slowly, all the while developing terrific players like Thomas Robinson and Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins and Jeff Withey, who led the team when they became juniors and seniors. In this way, he is quite a bit like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who continuously builds tough and experienced teams.
Put those two things together, and you have a team that simply doesn’t have down years. That’s what the amazing 12-year championship streak means: No down years. No rebuilding projects. No lowered expectations. This year could well be an anomaly with all of these experienced teams around the country, but even in an anomaly season you have Bill Self and Kansas winning another Big 12 title. And Kansas has as good a shot as any team to win come March.
“The champion may be a team that has a player get hot at the right time. A guy like Buddy Hield or Denzel Valentine, they can carry a team,” Self says. “It may be a team that has two guys carry them. If two key players are good on any given night, they can carry a team.
“What does that mean for us? I don’t know. For us, we have to find a way to make things uncomfortable for other teams. We’ve done that at times, but not consistently. Can we do it six games in a row? It’s a good question. But there are a lot of good questions this year.”