October means teams will soon begin practicing, and college basketball season tips off next month. So, which questions need answering? Today, we look at Bill Self’s push for a 12th consecutive Big 12 title and what that run means to Kansas basketball.
Bill Self, sporting a navy blue suit with a Jayhawks pin on the left lapel and a solid maroon tie that punctuated the ensemble, rose, approached the microphone on the dais and spoke to his new fans.
“I can’t tell you enough,” Self said during his introductory press conference on April 21, 2003, “that I am thrilled to be the basketball coach at the University of Kansas.”
That announcement preceded a reign that his power-conference colleagues in the modern game have not matched -- one he and the Jayhawks could extend during the 2015-16 season: 11 consecutive Big 12 championships.
What would another title mean? For Self. For Kansas. For the game.
College basketball’s crescendo ends with a spring tourney that gives the blue-chippers and blue-collar programs alike a skewed shot, based on seed, to win the national championship in the single-elimination NCAA tournament. There are 351 teams that play Division I basketball. More than 19 percent of those squads earn a berth to the Big Dance.
Every game counts in the fight for a slot in the NFL playoffs. Four teams enter the College Football Playoff. The NBA, NHL and MLB all invite multiple teams to the playoffs, but the “best of” series format limits the odds of an upset.
College basketball stands alone, among high-profile sports, in terms of its methods for awarding national championships and the rapidity with which a favorite that entered the tourney with momentum can disappear from the battle. It’s also unique due to the late-season brood of fans that arrive after the Super Bowl and only catch the last, most significant chapter of the season.
All of this matters in a conversation about Self, Kansas and a potential 12th consecutive Big 12 title.
For many, it’s difficult to assess the meaning and value of the streak. Some insiders get it. Fans who follow the sport all year understand the power of KU’s run. Within that group, however, some doubters question its strength.
For years, they’ve stood by the same arguments:
Self couldn’t do this in the ACC.
He has only one national championship (2008) during this run, so how much does it really matter?
In the modern game, conference titles don’t mean as much they once did.
It’s all static constructed to obscure a blissful reality for a basketball program and coach who have engineered a special brand of consistency.
Mark Few won 11 West Coast Conference titles in a row at Gonzaga from 2000 through 2011. That’s an incredible run, too. But it wasn’t achieved in a power conference. UCLA established a record of 13 consecutive crowns in the AAWU, Pac-8 and Pac-10 from 1966 to 1979 -- John Wooden led the Bruins to nine of those titles. The Bruins relied on nine consensus All-Americans (Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks, Bill Walton, Henry Bibby, Keith Wilkes, Dave Meyers, Richard Washington, Marques Johnson and David Greenwood) throughout that dominant period. But it’s only a footnote in a career highlighted by Wooden’s 10 national titles, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973.
Unlike Wooden, Self’s in-conference mastery has not matched his postseason results. Kansas won the national championship in 2008 and lost to Kentucky in the 2012 national title game, but the Jayhawks have failed to reach the second weekend of the tourney five times since 2005.
John Calipari reached the Final Four in four of the past five seasons and led Kentucky to the 2012 national title. Mike Krzyzewski has won two of his five national titles since 2010. Neither coach has equaled Self’s conference streak, but the praise for both in recent years illustrates the weight attached to NCAA tourney runs.
And that dilutes the mass appeal of what Self has achieved since 2005, the same year Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” topped the charts. It does not and should not minimize its worth, though.
This is a ridiculous run that deserves proper recognition. A 12th consecutive championship would be an appropriate time for college basketball fans, the casual and devoted, to acknowledge the challenges Self has overcome for more than a decade.
Something or someone should have knocked Kansas from its throne by now because that’s what usually happens in sports. An unexpected injury. The rise of another program. Suspensions in key stretches. Bad luck. A bad night, week or month.
Something. Yet Kansas remained on top.
The Big 12 has sent 23 non-Kansas players to the first round of the NBA draft since 2005, but LaMarcus Aldridge, Avery Bradley, Michael Beasley, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and others could not help their teams knock Kansas off its perch.
A 12th consecutive Big 12 title would stamp Kansas’ standing as the most dominant team in college basketball and solidify Self’s position as one of the three best coaches, along with Krzyzewski and Calipari, in the game today.
Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason and Perry Ellis will guide a Jayhawks squad that’s capable of extending the streak. And if that happens, it will leave Kansas and Self one short of UCLA’s record and two from setting a new standard.
But Self doesn’t need No. 14.
He doesn’t even need No. 12.
This already is the most impressive mark in the game.
You can point to magnificent postseason runs, outstanding winning streaks and rallies toward national titles. And they still won’t top the breadth of what Kansas has accomplished.
Each year for the past 11 seasons, Kansas has chewed through a significant portion of the season against familiar opponents and coaches, in favorable Allen Fieldhouse and harsh venues on the road, and still managed to end each Big 12 campaign in first place.
That’s not just impressive. It’s brilliant and unrivaled.
And a 12th consecutive Big 12 title would confirm as much. At least it should.