When Frank Mason III arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, three years ago, he had the same big dreams as any other college basketball player -- to win big games, to play in the NCAA tournament and perhaps win a national championship.
He also had one other goal.
"We don’t want to be the ones who broke the streak," Mason told me earlier this year, referring to the Kansas Jayhawks' run of regular-season conference titles. "We’ve won 11 in a row. We cannot be the ones to not get 12."
People like to say that in college basketball, no one cares about much until March, that the three-week joyride that is the NCAA tournament is the only thing that really matters.
In most places and in most cases, that might be true.
Not in Kansas.
Fittingly, the place that celebrates the inventor of the game still has an old-school respect for retro success.
The Jayhawks beat Texas Tech on Saturday, 67-58, to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 title.
Kansas now has won at least a share of the conference crown for 12 consecutive years, or XII years for the Big XII, if you will. The Jayhawks are one title shy of matching UCLA’s record string of conference superiority, an achievement all the more remarkable considering the game’s level of competition today.
Six Big 12 teams are ranked in the top 25. At one point, three of them shared the lead in the league standings, and KU began the conference season with a vulnerable 5-3 start.
And yet here we are.
The sun rises.
Water is wet.
Kansas wins the Big 12.
And anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter to the Jayhawks is sadly mistaken.
"It means a lot, a whole lot," Mason said. "We take a lot of pride in winning the conference. We want to win it for ourselves but for the people who came before us as well."
Indeed, to the players the title will no doubt be met with as much a sigh of relief as joy. Kansas, of course, is a place where the pressure to achieve is always extraordinary. The Streak has only upped the ante.
Kansas doesn’t want it to end.
Everyone else wants to be the one to end it.
Earlier this year, as West Virginia players were watching their managers play against Kansas' the night before their own game -- as has become tradition -- the Mountaineers also were keeping a close eye on the Texas-Oklahoma score. An Oklahoma loss would have helped WVU’s Big 12 cause.
"What’s the score? What’s the score?" Esa Ahmad asked over and over again.
"I wouldn’t say we get nervous about it, but there’s definitely more pressure because everyone else wants us to lose," Perry Ellis said recently. "And then, our own fans, winning is expected."
The catch, of course, is winning the Big 12 isn’t all that’s expected, and the dirty little not-so-secret for KU is, as great as the Jayhawks have been in the league, they haven’t been quite so great in March.
During that span of 12 league titles, Kansas has won one national championship, and that one came in 2008, a lifetime ago in Jayhawk basketball years. In between, KU has made it out of the first weekend just four times, with only one Final Four appearance (in 2012).
And that is the conundrum facing the new and old Big 12 champions.
Winning in a league that still plays a traditional round-robin that is as good as, if not better, than any in the country and in an age when most everyone glosses over the regular season in pursuit of March Madness, deserves high praise. What Kansas has achieved is nothing short of remarkable, a path of consistency in an era when players come and go and teams rise and fall.
But let’s face it, March still matters more.