Monday, February 27, 2012
On Kansas' ridiculous Big 12 title streak
By Eamonn Brennan
Kansas coach Bill Self's Jayhawks have captured an eighth straight Big 12 championship.
When you think about it, we Americans have a rather strange way of deciding our champions. We have tournaments, playoffs, best-of-seven series (unless, of course, we're talking about college football, which, let's not), all of which operate under one fundamental premise: Elimination competition is the best way to determine each season's most deserving champion.
This format is so ubiquitous -- and, let's be clear, so universally awesome -- that it's easy to forget ours isn't the only way to do things. (USA! USA!) For one obvious example, see the English Premier League. Each of the league's teams play an equal number of regular-season games. You get three points for a win, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss. At the end of the season, the team with the most points is the champion. The nearly eight-month season doesn't lead up to a playoff format; the league standings aren't merely used for seeding or bracketing. The season is the championship.
It can occasionally be anticlimactic (English and European soccer has plenty of elimination-format competitions, like the FA Cup and the Champions' League, so there are always thrills to be had elsewhere in case the league race widens), but you can't argue that it's unfair. The season is the largest sample size available, and the team that emerges atop the league table could never be considered a fluke. If you win the Premier League silverware, you're the best, and no one can dispute it.
Compare that to, say, college basketball. We play all these games, settle all these conference regular season titles and tournaments, all for the purpose of ordering everyone into one big 68-team field where, to be frank, things go crazy. This is why we love the NCAA tournament. I think it's the best sports competition in the world precisely for these reasons. But one side effect of its wackadoodle awesomeness is that it can make us forget just how good some of its victims really are.
It wasn't so long ago -- March 2008, to be exact -- when Kansas coach Bill Self found himself under no small amount of fan base pressure to finally win a national title. Kansas, both before Self and during his tenure, had developed a scoff-worthy reputation among casual fans as a perennial tournament flop -- the No. 1 seed you couldn't afford to pick in your bracket, the No. 1 seed that would be upset somewhere along the line. When Kansas took on Davidson star Steph Curry in the 2008 Elite Eight, it's no stretch to say that a loss would have made caused a full-fledged fan freakout. Self's impressive tenure to that point -- four-straight Big 12 titles, back-to-back 30-win seasons, the continuation of Roy Williams's nonstop recruiting machine, and so on -- may well have been have been lost in the fray.
Instead, Kansas held on to beat Davidson, Derrick Rose's free throws missed, Mario's Miracle didn't, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Four years later, it's clear there is no magic upset "hump" to clear, no one-time mental block, no demons to exorcise. Self's Kansas team has been upset in all three two out of three tournaments since 2008, including 2010's second-round loss to UNI and last year's Elite Eight defeat to that scorching VCU team. But after Saturday's win over Missouri, it seems like now might be the time to take a step back, consider Self's accomplishments at Kansas, and shake our heads in awe. Because this program just keeps winning.
Saturday's win sealed Kansas's share of the 2012 Big 12 regular-season title. This feat marks the eighth straight time Kansas has won at least a share its conference regular-season championship. After Saint Mary's strong finish in the West Coast Conference, which felled Gonzaga's bid at an 11th straight WCC title, KU's mark is now the longest active win streak in the country. Per ESPN Stats & Information, the next-longest are, or were, Xavier's five-year run in the A-10 (which is coming to an end this week) and Murray State and Belmont's three-year runs in the OVC and A-Sun, respectively.
The Atlantic 10 is a good league. The OVC and A-Sun occasionally berth a challenger or two. Saint Mary's has pushed Gonzaga for years. But none of those leagues are as consistently deep or talented or difficult to navigate as the Big 12.
At various times in Kansas's run, the Big 12 has been the best or second-best conference in the country. (Per Ken Pomeroy, that's the case again this year; the Big 12 ranks behind only the Big 10 in overall strength.) At various times in Self's tenure, his competition has recruited and rostered the likes of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Acie Law, Tristan Thompson, James Anderson, Tony Allen, and D.J Augustin -- and that's literally just the NBA guys that first came to mind. I'm sure there are countless more worthy of inclusion, including future lottery picks like Perry Jones III, or stars like Jacob Pullen, or Missouri's unique lightning-in-a-bottle squad this season.
But despite all that, Self has managed to recruit the Jayhawks as well as any coach who came before him. In many years, he's had an embarrassment of talented riches. The sheer fact that Thomas Robinson came off the bench last season should tell you that much. But even in seasons in which Self lost scores of former stars -- like in 2011, when he lost Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and Sherron Collins, or this season, when he lost two-thirds of his starting backcourt and both starting forwards to graduation and/or the NBA draft, and lost two incoming freshmen to partial qualifier status in the offseason -- he's managed to get the Jayhawks to the top of the league anyway.
There may have been some NCAA tournament upsets along the way, and some have been more dramatic than others, but in the biggest sample sizes, against some of the best college hoops talent of the past decade, Self's Kansas program has prevailed. It's a ridiculous, mind-blowing run of success, and we don't talk about it enough.
At the end of the day, coaches are measured by national titles, and you get national titles by surviving the insane landmine that is the NCAA tournament. But when you peel back the March Madness and really dig in, this is what college hoops success looks like. In the past 10 years, few have done it better than Self.