Now that KU has secured the outright Big 12 title with yesterday’s win over Texas, I started thinking about the characteristics of this year’s team and the unique qualities that have been on display on the march towards our 13th conference championship in a row. Years from now when I think back to what defined this year’s team, these are the hallmarks I believe I will remember:
I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but this has definitely been a challenging season when you consider the number of off-the-court issues this team has faced. Carlton Bragg, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson and Lagerald Vick have, either fairly or unfairly – and let’s be honest, some of the news has been troubling – all been been thrust into the national spotlight for actions & situations that no one wishes would have occurred. In addition, the shadow of an alleged rape investigation still hasn’t been (at least publicly) addressed. Despite the distractions and suspensions however, the team has remained focused enough to stay a top ranked team for the entire season. I don’t want to speculate that the team has become closer as protection against the swirl of events outside the locker room, but it wouldn’t be difficult to see them rallying into a more cohesive & tight-knit team and adopting a bunker-like “us against the world” mentality. When you also think back to the number of times Coach Self commented how well this team gets along and how fun of a group it is to coach, you can’t help but believe this closeness has played a significant part of the team’s success.
Although it would be easy to point to Self, this refers more to the leadership of the upperclassmen – primarily Landen Lucas and Frank Mason. All season, Lucas has served as KU’s rock on the inside. Not flashy, not perfect, not the person we all originally thought would be our primary force on the inside, but Lucas has provided consistency and reliability – as well as a couple of game-winning free-throws. As for Mason…what more can you say? He has been phenomenal, being the clear front-runner for national player of the year, let alone Big 12 player of the year. It became clear this was Mason’s team with his game winner against Duke, and ever since then he has consistently willed this team to victory with a combination of timely shots, relentless attacks to the hoop, and conditioning that has allowed him to be on the court for an amazing amount of time. Plus, he already has his own theme song, which I conservatively estimate that I reference & yell out a half-dozen times each game…
A couple of months ago when Udoka Azubuike suffered his season-ending wrist injury, I speculated that – at least offensively – the Jayhawks could end up being a better team. I believed that out of necessity, Coach Self would embrace the NBA’s concept of pace & space, and there would be a marked increase of our shooting three-pointers. Although I give myself points for seeing that the 2016-2017 team would play differently, I didn’t get it exactly right.
The best summary I’ve seen on our play this year is from Jonathan Tjarks, Staff Writer at The Ringer, in his article, “The Jayhawks Newly Modern Dominance“: “Kansas is playing a dramatically different style of basketball this season compared with how Self has dominated the conference in years past. A coach who made his name throwing the ball into the post is spreading the floor with shooters and running pick-and-rolls. He’s winning with small ball. One of college basketball’s blue bloods is playing NBA-style basketball, and it could be the key to its first national title in nearly a decade.” Of course a key reason for being able to do this is how Self has utilized the uber-talented Jackson as the team’s Swiss Army Knife. Instead of being a typical, perimeter-shooting wing, Jackson has been given the green light to take his defender to the basket at every man defense opportunity, serving as a type of offensive conductor & point-person when KU goes against zone defenses to take advantage of his incredible vision & passing ability, and employing his lock-down defender skills against every position on the court.
This, the final C that labels the 2016-2017 team, is probably the most significant. One might be tempted to look at how the Jayhawks have had to come from behind in multiple games this year and call the team lucky, but there’s no doubt about how tough this has ultimately made the team. “As far as a mental toughness team, I would take this team and go to the house and let it ride however it goes,” KU coach Bill Self said after the (Baylor) win. “(Late in the game, you) gotta have great possessions every time, and these guys did it.”
Although no game showcases this team’s ability to persevere like the amazing, come-from-behind victory against West Virginia when the Jayhawks were down by 14 when Mason went to the free-throw line with 2:43 remaining in regulation, there have been numerous instances when KU has had to find the will and the way to win: from the white-hot, national spotlight games against Duke and Kentucky, to the revenge-focused conference battles at K-State and Baylor. Just about every time KU takes the court we’re our opponent’s Game Of The Year, and there is an inevitable learning curve as players learn to take everyone’s best shot night in and night out. This year, KU has played one of the five-toughest schedules in college basketball and compete in what is widely renowned as the toughest conference – and we’re currently 26-3, won the conference by multiple games, and just might be ranked the #1 team in the nation on Monday. I don’t envision too many scenarios from here on out that should rattle this team. If, as the saying goes, there are no diamonds without pressure, the Jayhawks could be considered De Beers…
There definitely are some flaws with this year’s KU team, and another injury or even some ill-timed foul trouble could spell disaster – just like for everyone else. But the Jayhawks are one of college basketball’s best, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re able to use the strength & qualities displayed in the four Cs outlined above and win not just our 13th straight conference championship, but our fourth NCAA championship, as well.
Here’s looking forward to our march through March – Rock Chalk!