LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas players heard the doubters even before they twice lost two Big 12 games in a single month this season. Earlier, the Jayhawks suffered consecutive nonconference defeats.
“Everyone was taking the field instead of Kansas,” senior guard Clay Young said. “I think our guys really took that to heart.”
The field lost again this year, smothered by the courtside pressure at Allen Fieldhouse and a late-season KU surge that produced an outright Big 12 title on Monday night, courtesy of an 80-70 victory over Texas in this penultimate game of the regular season.
Sixth-ranked Kansas (24-6, 13-4) secured the top seed at the league tournament next month and punctuated its 14th straight conference crown -- an NCAA record it had shared with UCLA teams of the 1960s and ‘70s -- in resounding style on Senior Night.
The Jayhawks clinched a share of the title this past Saturday with a two-point win at upstart Texas Tech. They celebrated the accomplishment Monday at home, sweetened by the longer-than-usual odds that Kansas appeared to face at midseason.
“It’s been a grind,” two-time All-Big 12 guard Devonte’ Graham said. “There were a lot of people who doubted and kind of lost faith in us. We went through some rough patches. Through it all, we kept grinding and kept believing in each other.
“We didn’t want to be that team to end the streak, as we always say.”
Coach Bill Self, in his 15th season, often preaches exactly those words to his players, emphasizing the selfless approach necessary to finish no lower than in a tie for first in the league standings over parts of three presidential administrations.
The Jayhawks haven’t lost twice to the same league team in a regular season since Iowa State beat them twice in 2000-01, a trend Self’s team will seek to extend Saturday in the finale at Oklahoma State. Since the Jayhawks failed to win at least a share of the Big 12 title in 2003-04, 219 other Division I teams have won or shared a conference crown.
“It’s bigger than us,” Graham said, echoing his coach. “It’s the whole Jayhawk Nation. ... There’s a lot of pressure to lead the team in the right way down the path.”
The seniors led KU on Monday against Texas (17-13, 7-10), short-handed as freshman star Mohamed Bamba sat because of an injured toe. Guard Eric Davis was withheld for a second straight game after a Yahoo! Sports report detailed his connection to the college basketball scandal under investigation by the FBI.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by seniors Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk ignited a 16-0 run midway through the first half that gave control to Kansas. In building a 45-32 lead at halftime, KU showed many of the characteristics that allowed it to win five straight after losses to Oklahoma State and Baylor in two of three games to open February.
Notably, sophomore center Udoka Azubuike was nearly unstoppable without the presence of the 6-foot-11 Bamba on the interior for Texas. Azubuike, leading the nation in field goal percentage at 77.7 percent, made his first 10 shots. He has made 38 of 43 attempts in six games.
“This whole ride, it’s been special,” said Young, who received an ovation when he took the court with 26.1 seconds to play on Monday. “It’s the school. It’s the Fieldhouse. It’s the program. It’s the family that we have on this basketball team.”
Mykhailiuk, the Ukrainian sharpshooter who scored 17 in his Kansas home finale, forms a difficult-to-defend duo with Graham in March. They bonded over four years. Graham helped teach Mykhailiuk to speak English.
As March neared, Mykhailiuk said, urgency among the Jayhawks rose. On Feb. 17, before KU came from behind to beat West Virginia and Texas Tech lost by a bucket at Baylor, the Red Raiders had a 75 percent chance to win the league, according to ESPN’s BPI. A win for Tech would have bumped that percentage to 84.
What were the Jayhawks thinking at the time?
“We can’t lose it,” Mykhailiuk said.
Self addressed the crowd after the finish on Monday.
“This has been up and down,” the coach said. “It’s been challenging. We’ve been great. We’ve been not very great. But the bottom line is this: These guys know how to compete.”
According to Young, a local kid from Lansing, Kansas, Graham and Mykhailiuk “get it.” Some of the younger Jayhawks do not yet, Young said.
If history is an indicator, though, they will when their time to lead comes.
“It means a lot, honestly,” Young said of the Big 12 title. “This one was pretty sweet. The reaction I’ve seen from students and people around town, it’s different. It’s not the same as it was the past two years. Maybe part of that is because it’s an NCAA record now.
“The bigger part of it is because so many people thought we wouldn’t win it this year. Coach Self spoke with us about the importance that this 14th one would have. They’ll remember all those teams that won the eighth, ninth, 10th, whatever, but the team that won the 14th, that’s a pretty special one.”