KANSAS CITY — The state of emergency has eased in Kansas. The streak is safe for another year, and the Jayhawks are showing signs of rolling. Not there yet, as Bill Self kept saying Friday night, but getting closer.
So let’s ask them what it’s like around their place when they lose a couple of games.
THE BIG 12 CHRONICLES, CHAPTER 6.
Kansas will play for the conference tournament championship Saturday, having run past Kansas State 83-67 for its seventh win in the last eight games. The 14th consecutive league season title is in the bag, the 13th consecutive 25-win year, likely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Is the coach happy? Well . . .
“If I sleep two hours tonight it’ll be more than what I probably think I should, after how we played tonight,” said Self, who didn’t much like the energy he saw against a Kansas State team playing without its two top scorers, both injured. Then again, the Jayhawks don’t have the considerable paint presence of Udoka Azubuike and his sprained knee.
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And even Self had to admit, “There’s a lot of things to like.”
So all is well in Lawrence.
Not so long ago, it wasn’t.On Feb. 10, the Jayhawks lost by 16 points at Baylor. They were 8-4 in the Big 12, trailing Texas Tech in the standings, their glorious dynasty as league champion in jeopardy. Most shocking, they had lost three times at home.
How was it around town after those home losses?
“Crazy,” Malik Newman said in the locker room. “That’s not a good feeling the night of, or the day after.
“You go from everybody saying, `Hey Malik, how you doin’?’ to . . . “
Newman shrugged. That’s the way it is.
“Once you start losing, and people start looking at you different, you’ve got to kind of reevaluate and think about things. We read about it, but we didn’t panic about it, because we knew we weren’t playing our best basketball at the time.”
Big 12 player of the year Devonte’ Graham: “There’s a lot of pressure, but that’s why you come here, to win and feel that pressure. It builds you as a person and it builds you as a basketball player.”
Self: “This team is easy to nitpick with, because when we’re good, it’s magnified in ways because we can shoot and move the ball. When we’re bad, it’s magnified in ways because we don’t do the things in grind-it-out games that a lot of teams do.“So I think it’s fair to say that this team leaves you wanting more sometimes. But to win the league by two games --- they’re probably not saying that about Texas Tech or West Virginia. They’re probably saying that was a great year. Sometimes I think we get spoiled on what our expectations are.”
Something has clicked for the Jayhawks lately, and just in time.
“I think we found a new gear,” Mitch Lightfoot said.
Three defeats in Allen Fieldhouse in one season – Self had only lost 10 in his previous 14 years – would rattle the most stoic of Kansans. Even Dorothy and Toto would have been alarmed. Then there is the Big 12 streak, which is a truly remarkable feat but also something of a heavy bag to carry. Graham was nine years old when it started. Teammate Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk was six. Self was only two years removed from coaching at Illinois. Did they want to be on the team to see it end?
“People were definitely worried, about the streak, especially,” Graham said. “They talk about it so much, that’s all you think about during the season. It’s the streak, the streak, the streak, the streak. When you finally win it, it’s like a sigh of relief. And now coach tells us we can just go out and play our best ball because we don’t have to worry about the streak no more.”
Some of the Jayhawks say it was just a matter of everyone finally buying into what Self was selling. “An attitude of acceptance,” Lightfoot called it. Plus, any team that loses two All-Americans from the previous season will need time to adapt. Even Kansas, and it‘s conveyor belt of talent.
“You know what? I feel like every year we kind of struggle,” Graham said. “This might be the team that took the longest, but every year you definitely have those struggles, trying to find everybody to get on one page. To come together right now would be the perfect time.”Self still has his concerns. With Kansas State’s Makol Mawien -- averaging six points a game -- putting 29 inside points on the Jayhawks Friday night, it’s clear they need Azubike back.
“This is the time of year everybody in America is playing with energy and enthusiasm, and the games mean a lot. And we didn’t play like that tonight,” Self said. “It can be frustrating sometimes, because we play to our skill set rather than actually getting after people.”
Unsteady intensity is not good in March. “We’ve got to correct that real soon,” Self said, “because that inconsistency is how you lose this time of year.”
But things certainly feel a lot better than a month ago. Newman is getting smiles and greetings once more. But he understands the facts of life at Kansas.
“We’ve got to take care of business, or tomorrow we’ll be on the bad side again.”