Which of Kansas’ 10 Big 12 titles under Bill Self is most impressive?
As he walked off the court Monday night, Bill Self brought a rolled-up sheet of white paper to his mouth and bit down. That freed both hands to allow Kansas’ coach to return the hail of celebratory yelps coming his way from the crowd at Allen Fieldhouse: Self raised both arms and opened both palms, capturing a decade of dominance in one simple gesture.
The 83-75 win over Oklahoma clinched the 10th straight Big 12 championship for the Jayhawks. They are the fifth team ever to do that, and really the first big-conference program to do it in the modern era — unless you consider UCLA’s run of 13 straight from 1967-79 as modern.
It is among the most impressive streaks in college basketball history. But this might be even more astounding: Three times within the streak, Kansas has returned zero starters from the previous year’s team and nevertheless claimed at least a share of a league championship (2005-06, 2008-09 and 2013-14).
“It’s something you know coming in,” Jayhawks freshman guard Wayne Selden said Monday night. “That’s the standard.”
Still, it’s a high standard to uphold while overhauling an entire starting lineup. These are the three seasons that, in theory, presented the greatest threat to the streak. Here’s a look at how they rank, in terms of how impressively Kansas avoided surrendering its crown:
Departing starters: Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Brandon Rush, Darnell Jackson, Darrell Arthur
Previous year in Big 12: 13-3, tied for first
New starters: Sherron Collins, Brady Morningstar, Tyshawn Taylor, Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich
Big 12: 14-2, first place
Every element was there for a drop-off, maybe even a prodigious one, after the core of the Jayhawks’ national title team (including top reserve Sasha Kaun) departed. Instead Kansas actually won more Big 12 games (14 versus 13) in a highly competitive league that featured just four teams below .500 in conference play. Sherron Collins exploded from complementary player to an 18.9-points-per-game scorer, and Cole Aldrich emerged as a double-double force (14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game). Self knew a rebuild was coming and restocked the cupboard deftly: That year’s crop of freshmen featured six four-star prospects, including the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, and guard Tyshawn Taylor, plus junior college transfer Mario Little.
Departing starters: Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore, Travis Releford, Kevin Young, Jeff Withey
Previous year in Big 12: 14-4, tied for first
New starters: Naadir Tharpe, Wayne Selden Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Perry Ellis, Joel Embiid
Big 12: 13-2, first place (three games remaining)
Ben McLemore was high-level outgoing talent, but the abundance of incoming talent made a title run this season all but expected. Andrew Wiggins was practically canonized before he even set foot in Lawrence. Likewise fellow freshmen Selden and Joel Embiid were not expected to be long-term projects. But the context of this title run is the impressive part: Even as the Jayhawks stumbled somewhat by going 9-4 against an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, they seized a spot as a Big 12 frontrunner by winning their first seven league games and never really relinquished their grip on first place. And though there was some unanticipated fall-off by other teams (Oklahoma State most notably), the Big 12 is arguably the nation’s best or second-best conference. As gifted as the current lot is, Kansas had a tough league to navigate and didn’t waver.
Departing starters: Aaron Miles, Keith Langford, J.R. Giddens, Christian Moody, Wayne Simien
Previous year in Big 12: 12-4, tied for first
New starters: Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Sasha Kaun
Big 12: 13-3, tied for first
Of the 10 Jayhawks to average double-figures in minutes, eight were freshman or sophomores. That might seem to make this year more impressive than the others on this list, but when compared to the reshuffling of the 2009 and ’14 teams, this was surviving as opposed to thriving. Only Rush and Chalmers averaged in double-figure scoring, and it wasn’t a particularly thorny conference grind to manage, with seven Big 12 teams finishing below .500 in league play. In addition Texas, which shared the regular-season title with Kansas, stomped the Jayhawks by 25 in their only meeting during the season. KU avenged that loss during the Big 12 tournament, but the regular-season rebuild wasn’t as dominating as the two that would follow.