By Chad Rader
Kansas winning a Big 12 title. Yawn, what else is new, right?
For the rest of the league and common basketball fans on the outside, this seems like old news, like another seasonal Boulevard beer coming out or brash Donald Trump quote.
For many Jayhawks fans and media, most seemed astonished that the season has flipped and KU likely clinches a share of its 12th straight league crown on Saturday.
Yes, 12 straight conference titles is still a laughable, amazing feat. For weeks, discussions of Kansas on-air or online have been prefaced how its "not one of Self's most talented teams", as if its with a hodge-podge of players or Bill Self took a roster of middling players and turned them into a winner.
Maybe its because KU trailed in the Big 12 race just three weeks ago. Maybe its because there isn't a lottery pick - or two - on the roster.
But like Self told the media at Thursday's weekly press conference, there's more to a team than a superstar or two that makes a great team.
"We don't the great prospects as we've had in the past," replied Self, when asked how they've won without a top 15 projected NBA draft pick this spring. "We've had some pretty good prospects run through here, as evidenced where they're drafted. But what we have are many good players. Sometimes that creates balance and creates a lot of things that's fun to coach."
"Sometimes when we say that, it's discrediting how good your players are. We have good players, and a bunch of them. We don't have the projected NBA top lottery picks as have in some of the years in the past."
"And they care, and they care a lot. They try real hard and are competitive. And we've also been fortunate, knock on wood, we've stayed away from injuries. Won some close games that could go the other way."
And that's not to say there aren't future NBA stars on the team. Self reminded the media that eventual No. 5 pick Thomas Robinson sat behind three NBA lottery picks (Marcus and Markieff Morris, Cole Aldrich). Or Jeff Withey was the sixth best post player on the roster, before setting a NCAA Tournament record for most blocked shots in 2012.
Self talked about Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg and even freshman LaGerald Vick, and they'll eventually be good. But it doesn't benefit Kansas to play them right now.
"It's not an easy thing when you get humbled and highly recruited to come in and buy in, that's difficult to do, but our three freshman have been great," Self said. "The thing that's been important to us is that this team also has to win. It's such a balance that you want to do what's best for the kids, but on the flip side, what's best for the kids is playing the guys that's best for our team."
Self was also asked if he's most proud of this team (likely) winning the Big 12. I thought earlier this season of writing a column, ranking Self's most talented teams, and this certainly is far from the bottom. Heck, the 2012 team had Justin Wesley as the first man off the bench (referenced later, below). Christian Moody started on some Big 12 title teams. No offense, but Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed were the starting backcourt and KU still won the league and were a No. 1 seed.
If it wasn't for Buddy Hield, Perry Ellis may be the Big 12 Player of the Year. Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham would star at point for most teams. Wayne Selden Jr and Lucas are experienced, older players, as well as Traylor and Greene off the pine.
Maybe it's the glamorous high-scoring offenses of an Iowa State, or star power of an Oklahoma that had KU fans and media offline, but seriously? And with a two-game lead with three to go, beating Oklahoma and Baylor - and most teams - twice, its hard to fathom how Self doesn't win Coach of the Year.
It's funny how the season started and evolved, and how short fans and media's memories become. First, Kansas wins the World Games in South Korea, and all that was discussed was how the Jayhawks have a veteran roster, two good point guards and an elder tandem of Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden.
Then the Cheick Diallo / NCAA fiasco lingered, and everyone expected greatness immediately the freshman. Then it was that Self wasn't playing Diallo and Bragg, and he should've taken losses to advance their progress for the NCAA Tournament. Those murmurings got louder after KU lost three of five in mid-January, and now KU wasn't going to even win the LEAGUE!
So Self kept playing Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor with toggling Brannen Green and Svi Mykhailiuk and Hunker Mickelson (when healthy). Gradually, Lucas found his role inside and now has averaged 8.4 ppg and a whopping 10.8 rebounds in the last five games - a span which includes three road wins.
And a team that did seemingly fold once the road team got the lead now how flipped that and been the veteran team, like it showed in South Korea, that rises up in the final 3-4 minutes, and makes the plays. At Oklahoma, at Kansas State, at Baylor - all within single digits and 1-2 possessions, and KU made the plays to win.
"Intangibles have played a role in it. Certainly toughness is one of those big intangibles," Self said.
The recent eight-game win streak, seven in Big 12 play to slam the door on the league, all started with the Kentucky win on January 30, in which KU showed the same moxie down the stretch as it did in the fabled Oklahoma triple-overtime classic. Since then, well, it may have been the jumpstart KU needed.
"I thought the way the schedule was, we had a chance to get the wheels back on if we played well. But I don't think down the road that far and think one or two games at a time... I haven't thought about we can get on a serious roll right here when have to go to OU, have to go to Baylor, still have to go to Manhattan."
But Kansas showed then - and since - it is the more veteran team down the stretch.
"We close the (Baylor) game out 13-2, I think is a sign of toughness. Not necessarily physical toughness, but mentally tough."
Which may equate to what KU fans want the most - a long NCAA run. The last elder team KU has was the 2012 and 2013 tourney teams that went to the NCAA Final and then the Sweet 16 (with a near walk to the Elite Eight before Elijah Johnson implosion). The team wasn't the highest on talent after Thomas Robinson in 2012, but won every game down the stretch in the final minutes.
With just a few weeks before the NCAA Tourney, that's what KU resembles - a better version of the 2012 team. And that team has Justin Wesley and Conner Teahen as the first off the bench. Not Diallo's and Bragg's and Svi's and Greene's and Traylors.
While there may not be a Jayhawk called on the NBA Draft's first hour - or first round - that doesn't matter when it comes to this season and what still remains. Maybe it wasn't Diallo and Bragg, but Lucas instead. Who cares?
And KU has a few things that fans and media can't measure. And to reference baseball as Self does in pressers, its much how the Royals don't project to high win totals in that desire and toughness and know their roles and handling late-game pressure aren't measured. And what everyone seemingly forgot - KU basketball just knows how to win.
"It's their last go round, Self said. "They just want to win."
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