The most recent time Kansas failed to win a share of the Big 12 title -- 2004 -- the “Notebook” and “Mean Girls” dominated the box office. Usher, Lil’ Jon and Ludacris topped the charts with their club hit “Yeah.” The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction created controversy at the Super Bowl. And “Friends” aired its last episode.
Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre were in elementary school that year. Just a couple kids unaware how their maturation midway through the 2014-15 college basketball season would affect the Jayhawks’ push for their 11th consecutive Big 12 championship.
A few months ago, it seemed 2014-15 could be the year the streak would end. That’s still a possibility. But Kansas has emerged as the favorite again, though that could change as early as Saturday, when the Jayhawks travel to Ames to face Iowa State.
On a Tuesday night that featured Oklahoma committing 22 turnovers in a loss at West Virginia and losing its second consecutive game, Kansas didn’t play great: 16 turnovers, 3-for-12 from the 3-point line, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis combined to go 3-for-15 from the field.
But the No. 9 Jayhawks still topped 24th-ranked Oklahoma State by double digits, with a score of 67-57. The Cowboys finished the night as the third consecutive team that has failed to register 60 points against Kansas.
The Jayhawks are jelling. The growth of Alexander and Oubre is an important part of that.
Kansas didn’t look like Kansas in the first part of the season, for a variety of reasons. Some of them were familiar, such as challenges at point guard -- Frank Mason's learning to lead, Devonte Graham’s injury -- and a group of players still adjusting to new roles. There were few concerns about KU’s talent trove, even though Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid had left for the NBA.
Kansas is accustomed to this here today, gone in six months culture.
Self is also known for turning freshmen into immediate contributors. Xavier Henry, Ben McLemore, Wiggins and Embiid all blossomed early and quickly. By midseason, it was clear KU’s ceiling was tied to their successes.
It has been a slower process with Alexander and Oubre, who are both elite recruits, former McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects.
Self didn’t trust Oubre enough to give him big minutes in November and the bulk of December. The frustrated freshman recorded double digits in minutes just twice in November.
Alexander faced the typical learning curve most bigs encounter as they transition to Division I basketball. No longer Paul Bunyan, though he looked like some mythical figure on this dunk, Alexander had to adjust to the reality that he’s no longer the biggest, strongest and most fearsome guy on the floor -- not every night, at least.
It was unusual to watch their early struggles, only because they play for a powerhouse such as Kansas, where the expectation is top prospects arrive, Self adds water, and they average 12.0 PPG.
Aren’t these guys lottery picks?
Aren’t they supposed to be stars?
Why aren’t they dominating?
Let’s go back to Tuesday, when Oubre collected 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. He is averaging 13.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 2.0 SPG over his past seven outings. Oubre is rising.
Alexander finished with seven points, five rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes against Oklahoma State. His stat sheet wasn’t sexy, but he clogged the lane and contested shots against Le’Bryan Nash (5-for-14) and his teammates. Alexander's strength and size continue to draw extra defenders and create gaps for the Jayhawks on offense. He’s getting better.
Plus, Kansas is 6-0 whenever Alexander finishes with at least 10 points and four rebounds.
It’s clear Oubre and Alexander are beginning to thrive under Self. If this trajectory continues, the Jayhawks will likely remain atop their Big 12 perch.
But there’s another factor in this, one the stats won’t show.
The Jayhawks finally look like they enjoy playing with one another. A couple freshmen who didn’t know where they stood earlier this season are developing.
And smiling. Finally.