In this unpredictable college basketball season in which no No. 1 is permanent in the polls and bracketology seeds have wildly fluctuated, it has become increasingly difficult to answer the question that starts to creep up this time of year: Who will win the national title?
The Jayhawks (25-4, 13-3) just clinched a share of their 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title on Saturday after shaking off Texas Tech 67-58. They'll likely be the No. 1 team in Monday's USA TODAY Sports coaches poll and are the top overall seed in Sunday's USA TODAY Sports bracketology projections based on a fantastic NCAA résumé that includes the country's best Ratings Percentage Index.
Coach Bill Self's team looks much different than many of his more recent teams. It lacks the one-and-done flavor of two years ago, when Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid steered the Jayhawks. Instead this is a veteran group, led by seniors Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and juniors Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. These veterans aren't stars or lottery picks by themselves. But together the recipe has led to one of Self's better teams in the last decade. Including the 2008 championship team.
For the fourth time this season, Smart’s remodeled team got the better of a Top 10 team, the most such wins by any NCAA club this year. That’s outstanding, and considering UT won three of those without best center Cam Ridley, Smart should be a lock for Big 12 coach of the year, with all due respect to Bill Self. It’s flat-out astonishing that Texas and OU are tied with 10-6 league marks.
For Texas to accomplish this and put itself in the running for maybe a No. 4 seed is nothing short of remarkable. Remember, Smart’s frontcourt is so unimposing offensively that Prince Ibeh and Shaq Cleare combined for just four points Saturday, although Ibeh had a solid game with 10 boards and two blocks.
Texas took down the Sooners and likely national Player of the Year Buddy Hield 76-63 with an impressive 22-0 run in front of a jampacked Erwin Center that was treated to fireworks, balloons, cookies and Texas’ best win of the year.
“Yeah, because it was today,” Smart cracked. “You’ve got to learn I’m a in-the-moment guy. They’ve kind of had our number.”
But this was a special moment. It was a milestone for Smart and Texas, which had been the Sooners’ personal whipping boy of late, having lost five in a row and two straight in Austin. Texas didn’t just beat OU. It jackhammered the Sooners into submission down the stretch, handing them their most lopsided loss of an otherwise spectacular 22-6 season.
After beating No. 3 Oklahoma, Texas guard Javan Felix was asked if he’d like to see UT fans storm the court. “No, we don’t need that,” he said.
The uber-confident guard truly believes the Horns are unbeatable at the moment. That feeling could prove useful Monday night against Kansas, which clinched a share of its 12th straight Big 12 title over the weekend.
Six Texas seniors will be honored before the game at 7:40 p.m. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. on ESPN’s “Big Monday” national broadcast.
The Jayhawks (25-4, 13-3 Big 12) are currently ranked second in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. When the poll is updated midday Monday, Kansas is likely to move into the No. 1 spot, making the inviting target all that much bigger.
Texas coach Shaka Smart should hope Kansas ascends to the top spot. The Longhorns are 0-8 all-time against the nation’s top-ranked team. Now may be a good time to snap that streak, too.
“Right now, we’re really confident in our ability,” UT senior Prince Ibeh said. “We’ve proven we can beat anybody. We feel like we can beat everybody. We just go out there every day trying to prove it.”
Series history: Kansas leads the all-time series 26-8. The Longhorns have beaten the Jayhawks only twice this decade (2011 and 2014, both in Austin). Coach Bill Self’s club captured a 76-67 in Lawrence on Jan. 23 even though Texas led for almost 25 minutes during that game. Senior Perry Ellis fueled an 18-4 second-half run to put the game away.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Texas is currently tied for third place in the Big 12 standings along with Oklahoma and Baylor. All have matching 10-6 league records. … F Connor Lammert had a terrific shooting day against the Jayhawks in January, making a career-high 5 of 7 shots from 3-point range. He was 4 for 7 from downtown on Saturday against Oklahoma. … The Horns can’t get stagnant. The offense produced just seven assists on 25 made field goals against the Sooners. G Isaiah Taylor had five of those. … G Eric Davis has quietly finished in double figures four straight games. He’s also done it seven times in 16 Big 12 games. Davis shoots 37.5 percent from 3-point range.
Austin Statesman Game Preview
“Now my concern is making sure we stay hungry,” Self said, “because when you put such an emphasis on, ‘This is our goal,’ then when you accomplish the goal, are you still hungry to keep moving forward? The great teams do (that).”
It takes some squinting, but with enough effort, one can make out reasons for KU to be motivated Monday.
For one, the Jayhawks still haven’t won the league championship outright. Although Self says he would have been happy with a share of the title before the year began, the competitive part of him wants to finish the deal.
Not only that, he doesn’t like the thought of any other Big 12 teams being able to deliver recruiting mailouts stating they also are conference champs.
“After you’re guaranteed a piece,” Self said, “you want to be the only one that does it.”
West Virginia remains as the only team with a shot to catch KU, sitting two games back of the Jayhawks with two remaining.
“If we drop these two games and something crazy happens, it wouldn’t be as sweet,” KU forward Jamari Traylor said. “We just want to win it outright.”
KU also should have a shiny new number next to its name this week. Following Villanova’s road loss to Xavier, the Jayhawks should move up to No. 1 in both national polls.
“I feel like we deserve it,” Traylor said. “I feel like we’ve worked pretty hard. But it’s not the most important thing. We’ve still got a couple more games left in Big 12 play. We want to win those.”
Mason has hit a stride in KU’s last five games, making more than 44 percent of his shots in each game and committing only six turnovers. He is now eighth in the Big 12 in scoring (13.6 points per game) and sixth in assists (4.5).
“Coach has been telling me to take my time and to be aggressive,” Mason said, “and things have just started to come to me.”
Mason is also fourth in the Big 12 in minutes (33.2 per game). Self was asked if he plans to rest his starters with the Big 12 title clinched. He said he doesn’t plan to, especially with a big game looming at 8 p.m. Monday against No. 25 Texas in Austin.
While Self said his players deserve time to celebrate, he understands the Texas turnaround is quick.
“I wish the Texas game was on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but it’s not,” Self said. “We’ll be ready to play — doesn’t guarantee we play well. But these guys need to have some fun and enjoy themselves.”
The Longhorns (19-10, 10-6) are coming off of a 76-63 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma on Saturday. Texas’ Isaiah Taylor is fourth in the Big 12 in scoring with 15.5 points per game and has picked up 27 assists in his last five contests. Last time out, Kansas was able to limit Taylor to 13 points and five assists.
“Shaka (Smart) has done a great job,” Self said. “They’re playing with confidence, and the first time we played them it was anybody’s ball game.”
Self said Texas guards tough and KU will need to execute better than it did last time against the Longhorns — a 76-67 victory Jan. 23 in Lawrence — to come out with a win.
“I definitely want to play,” Traylor said. “But more than that, I want to win. It’s my senior year, and when we win big at the end of it, it’s gonna be a bigger piece of the pie for everybody. You gotta sacrifice a little bit for the greater good.”
So as his minutes slipped, Traylor refused to let his attitude slip with them. He credits former teammate and current Los Angeles Lakers forward Tarik Black for helping him embrace a more limited role and pointed to a January text exchange between the two former front-court-mates that made acceptance easier.
“In the text, he said, ‘I’m sitting on the plane with Kobe (Bryant) and on a bench in the NBA right now when I could be somewhere else doing something crazy,’” Traylor began. “That had me like, ‘You know what? I’ve got nothing to complain about.’ “He was saying, ‘Man, at the beginning of my senior year I didn’t even play, I was fouling and didn’t play, and now I’m in the NBA making money when I could be on the streets in Memphis.’ That really hit me because it made me think, ‘You know what, I could be in Chicago right now doing something crazy.’
“So I just look at guys like that and appreciate the example they’ve set. I’d like to be Tarik right now, making a lot of money just playing ball and doing what you love to do.”
Traylor said the compliments from Self and appreciation and respect his teammates have tossed his way have made him feel like a critical part of this team, even if his 3.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game don’t scream that.
One man who has helped Traylor focus on his role and savor every minute of it is KU director of student-athlete development, Fred Quartlebaum, who at times this season has sounded a lot like Traylor’s corner man.
“Coach Q’s always in my ear saying, ‘Senior year. Enjoy the moment. Time’s tickin,’” said Traylor, shaking his head and laughing. “It’s kind of sad, really, but he says it all the time, so as far as embracing the moment, I do that every day.”
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VOTE DAILY For Perry Senior CLASS Award
“Pay Heed. The game you love began here. Respect those who came before you. Make their legacy your own. Because destiny favors the dedicated. And rings don’t replace work. In this game you don’t get what you want. You get what you earn. We are Kansas. Together we rise. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!”
Big 12/College News
So which conference is having the best season entering March Madness? These are the top 10 conferences of 2015-16, based on a combination of strength at the top and overall depth.
1. Big 12. Kansas' 12th straight Big 12 regular season championship is made all the more impressive by the fact that this is a particularly great year for the conference. The Jayhawks' competition is as a steep as ever, and yet they locked up at least a share of the league title with a week left to play. Of the league's 10 teams, seven appear to be heading to the NCAA Tournament: Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, Iowa State and Baylor, with Texas Tech also positioning itself for a surprise bid thanks to a strong February. In a wide-open season, Kansas is the team in the best shape nationally for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with Oklahoma still in the mix as well.
This is a fun, competitive group of teams playing even schedules, making for an exciting last two months. Kansas is balanced with a veteran roster. Oklahoma has the national player of the year frontrunner, Buddy Hield, with an offense capable of putting on impressive shooting exhibitions. West Virginia is relentless on defense. Shaka Smart has quickly put Texas on the right track in his first season. This is the best, most entertaining league in college basketball.
Sports on Earth
After four months of changes at the top, the votes are in and the Oscar for the best college basketball team goes to Kansas. The acceptance speech will be made by coach Bill Self.
That's not how this process works, obviously. The most entertaining event in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament, decides the champion. But as of today, the Jayhawks are the No. 1 team in the nation and the favorites to be the top overall seed in the tournament, which promises to be as wide open and wild as ever.
No futures ticket can be cashed until April 4. Between now and then, the trip could be as unpredictable as Hunter S. Thompson's ride with the Hell's Angels. March is always a month for memorable upsets, and that should be especially true this year.
William Hill sports book director Nick Bogdanovich, a former college basketball player, said he sees as many as 34 teams with a legitimate shot to reach the Final Four.
"That's a pretty big number," Bogdanovich said. "I think there are 16 teams that could win it all and another 18 that could get to the Final Four."
When facing the rest of the nation, Self has encountered extraordinary success in the NCAA Tournament when coaching a veteran bunch and has experienced mixed tournament results when banking heavily on freshmen.
Heading into this season, half of Self’s teams included two or more freshmen among the top five scorers, and half had fewer than two freshmen among the top five in points.
In years with fewer than two frosh in the top five, Self has a 17-5 tournament record, 10-6 when relying heavily on freshmen.
Carlton Bragg Jr. is this season’s leading freshman scorer. His 112 points rank him eighth on the team. Cheick Diallo has scored 68 points, which places him 10th.
Another emerging pattern also bodes well for Kansas. This will be the fourth time Self has coached the Jayhawks in the tournament in a presidential-election year. His tourney record in the previous three: 14-2. He’s 13-9 in all other years.
Billionaire Warren Buffett caused a stir two years ago when he offered $1 billion to anyone who could pick a perfect bracket in the annual men’s NCAA basketball tournament known as March Madness. It was a relatively safe bet with the odds ranging anywhere from 1 in 4.3 billion to 1 in 9.2 quintilian depending on who was doing the counting. The Buffett Bracket generated a lot of attention for the world’s third richest man and Quicken Loans, which sponsored the contest.
Buffett, who is currently worth $62 billion, is back with his latest contest announced this morning on CNBC during a three-hour appearance where he talked about business, the markets and the state of the world after the release over the weekend of the annual shareholder’s letter for his company Berkshire Hathaway ngIf: ticker BRK.B +% ngIf: show_card end ngIf: ticker . Buffet offered $1 million a year for life for any employee at Berkshire or one of its subsidiaries who picks a perfect bracket through the Sweet 16 of the tournament. He dubbed it the “ultimate office bracket contest.” It is a tall order with the winner required to correctly pick 48 straight games.
CBS Interactive Tool: Pick two teams to compare record, RPI and SOS details head to head. By default, the top two teams in RPI are shown.
Big 12 Composite Schedule & Results
Asked Friday night on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area to name his finalists, Jackson responded: “Michigan State, Arizona and Kansas.”
Jackson, the nation’s No. 1 prospect according the 247Sports.com composite rankings, also said he hopes to makes his decision in about a month. Originally from Detroit, he moved to California before his junior year to attend and play for Prolific Prep in Napa, Calif.
…Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and associate head coach Dwayne Stephens flew to California to watch Jackson play last weekend. The 6-foot-8 shooting guard has said little in public about his recruitment and has yet to set an official visit to MSU.
But Izzo has been in full pursuit for months and signed members of MSU’s 2016 class have said they talk with him often about joining the class. He is longtime friends with Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston, half of a class currently ranked No. 3 in the nation behind Kentucky and Duke.
Arizona coach Sean Miller came to watch Jackson and Prolific Prep on Friday night for Senior Night.
USA Today (He announced his three schools on Feb 1 in USA Today. Not sure why it's suddenly news again but whatever.)
Recruiting Calendar (updated for 2016)
Late Night in the Phog
Bill Self Camp KU Alumni games
60 Years of AFH Celebration
Legends of the Phog game
2011-12 Final Border War
KC Prep Invitational
and more, now on YouTube