LAWRENCE — Chalk has reigned supreme at the Big 12 Tournament, where no team seeded lower than fourth has ever won in a 22-year history that’s seen the top-seeded squad triumph 10 times.
This year’s tournament isn’t quite a coin flip either, at least not in the opinion of Kansas coach Bill Self, who expects the league’s most successful regular-season teams to be the favorites at the event that tips off Wednesday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
That doesn’t, however, mean Self is advising anyone to break out a Sharpie just yet.
“There’s always a team out there like Iowa State — man, if they get hot, they can beat anyone. Or a team like Texas, if they get hot,” Self said Monday. “And to be candid with you, a team like us. I think we’ve shown we can play at as high a level as anybody in our league on specific instances. We just haven’t done it consistently.”
If the No. 17-ranked Jayhawks (23-8), who open with an 8:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal against Texas, are to make noise in this Big 12 Tournament, they’ll have to do it from an unfamiliar position.
The event’s 11-time champion is seeded third this go-round, its lowest position since Self’s debut campaign in 2003-04. That was also the last season before the start of KU’s national record-breaking run of 14 consecutive regular-season league titles, a streak that came to an end this year.
KU won’t be the favorite at this tournament, but Self is hopeful the sting of not winning the league in the regular season can serve as motivation to his players in pursuit of a postseason crown.
"I do think there’ll be a sense of urgency," Self said. "I texted with some of them (Sunday) night and I think they’ll be very excited to be a part of this and go roll the dice. I’ve actually thought we’ve been always motivated to go over there and win the tournament, but it’s been a mature motivation. It hasn’t been a ‘rah-rah’ motivation, at all, because deep down in our guys’ core they know what we’re trying to do is validate what we’ve already done, and you’re playing for a one- or a two-seed line (in the NCAA Tournament). It’s different this year. ...
"It’s amazing to me: We could be a three-seed in the Big 12 Tournament and also a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament. But we have to go play.”
Pegged as a No. 4-seed in the East Region in the latest NCAA Tournament projections from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, KU took the first step Saturday toward a strong finish with a 78-70 home victory over Baylor. Before that contest, Self guessed a three-seed as the highest attainable slotting he could foresee, and Monday, he emphasized the importance of the next week in determining that destiny.
“Certainly our seed line in the NCAA Tournament could be affected more this year (by the Big 12 Tournament) than it has been in past years, without question,” Self said, “from a positive and a negative.”
Standing in KU’s way in the quarterfinal contest is a Texas (16-15) team clinging to its NCAA Tournament aspirations.
The Longhorns are listed as an 11-seed in Lunardi’s projections but boast players Self labeled as perhaps the league's best NBA prospect (freshman forward Jaxson Hayes), best athlete (sophomore forward Jericho Sims) and a player developing into not only one of the Big 12's best freshmen but one of its best guards (Courtney Ramey).
Oh, and the Longhorns will also on Thursday see the return of leading scorer Kerwin Roach, who averaged 15 points before serving a five-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
“I think Texas is, without question, one of the more talented teams in our league. ... I think they pose a threat for whoever they may be playing," Self said. "They didn’t have the best last game of the season (in a 69-56 home defeat to TCU), so they’ll be so turned up against us, which is the way it should be when it’s a one-and-done-type situation. We’ll be turned up as well.”
What do the Jayhawks need to do in Kansas City? Make shots, for starters. Defensive rebounding would help, too. Self identified those two areas Monday along with a third, more intangible-level goal.
“I think we have to grow up and play beyond our years a little bit,” said Self, who enters the postseason with four starting freshmen for the first time in his 16-year tenure. “But I also think this, when you say how do we do it: How did we do it a number of particular games throughout the season? We have been bad away from home on the road, but the other 20 games on the season, we haven’t been that bad. ...
“Why did we advance (last year)? Well, Malik (Newman) got hot, Devonte’ (Graham) got hot and Svi (Mykhailiuk) got hot. We made shots. And so that’s what needs to happen. We need to have some guys step up and make some shots. We’ve shown we’re capable of doing that. We’ve had a couple games where we’ve had double-figure 3s. But the other thing is we’ve had too many games where other people had career nights against us shooting the ball, and that’s what we’ve got to eliminate. We’ve got to make other people play poorly.”
VICK FINISHED — Guard Lagerald Vick will not make an 11th-hour return to the team in the postseason, Self said, closing the book on the career of the team's lone senior.
“There’s really no reason to ask anymore,” Self said. “Enough time has passed that we won’t have any roster changes moving forward.”
Vick averaged 14.1 points and 4 rebounds in his final campaign, missing the last eight games of the regular season to tend to what the team labeled “personal matters.”