The question comes up every year, and I think I’ve figured out the best way to answer it.
Kansas has won 13 straight Big 12 conference titles — a streak that defies statistical logic — and the natural query that follows is this: What has been the biggest key for the Jayhawks?
A hall of fame coach is a good start. So is talent that seems to replenish itself each year, along with a home-court advantage that is one of the best in college basketball.
But the reality is, mixed together, all those elements have come together to produce something astounding … and also absolutely necessary when trying to win a competitive league year after year.
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The Jayhawks, to me, win the Big 12 each year for one simple reason: They win way more close games than they should.
And that’s why KU’s 73-72 victory over Nebraska was so important.
First, the ridiculous numbers. Logic would tell us that winning close games is likely more about luck than skill. Sometimes the ball bounces your way and you win, while other times, it doesn’t and you lose. And while we might expect a good team like KU to win more competitive games than it loses, there’s still not much reason to believe the Jayhawks should stray too far from what would be considered normal.
Yet, here is the reality: KU entered Saturday 84-32 over the last eight seasons in games decided by 10 points or fewer. That included a 45-13 mark since 2014.
And suddenly, KU coach Bill Self’s words from the last week start to make more sense. A nine-point loss to Washington and 10-point defeat against Arizona State both were out of character, as when the games got tough, the Jayhawks wilted instead of becoming stronger.
When Self talks about wanting his players to have a “dog” mentality, this is what he means. Do you want to compete? When the game’s on the line, are you at your best, or your worst? Can you come through to win more than your fair share of coin-flip games?
It was one of Self’s biggest worries with this roster before Saturday, which made the effort all the more encouraging.
KU, time after time, made winning plays in the final minutes.
Three examples stick out in particular. After struggling with Nebraska’s 1-3-1 zone, Self set up a lob play during his team’s timeout with 2:24 left. Udoka Azubuike shuffled his man up the lane, Lagerald Vick broke at the correct moment and Devonté Graham threw an accurate pass, resulting in an alley-oop that tied it.
In the final minute, Self called another set play, and again the execution was sound. Coming off a ball screen, Graham attacked the lane, and when he saw Nebraska’s Isaiah Roby stay home in the lane to prevent a lob to Azubuike, he made the correct read to throw back to Svi Mykhailiuk for an open corner three.
The Jayhawks’ final defensive possession with a one-point lead also showed strong awareness and focus. Nebraska had just gotten James Palmer a driving angle and layup on a similar play seconds earlier, but this time, Mykhailiuk switched with Vick, which cut off Palmer’s penetration and forced a pass to the perimeter. Anton Gill missed the contested three with Malik Newman next to him.
“Down the stretch, I think we did perfectly,” Graham said.
Perhaps no sight could have been better for Self.
After challenging his players this week, the Jayhawks showed him the intangible quality of years past, concentrating hardest and performing best during crunch time.
It’s the magic sauce that led KU to 13th straight conference titles.
And this year’s team — as we learned Saturday — might just have it too.
Kansas coach Bill Self talks to reporters after his team’s 73-72 road victory over Nebraska on Dec. 16, 2017.