- Jason King
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The Kansas basketball squad is three wins away from winning its ninth straight league title -- a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a major conference program since the days of UCLA and John Wooden.
Still, if the Jayhawks end up hoisting the Big 12 trophy, coach Bill Self won't expect the accomplishment to generate much buzz in Lawrence.
"A few fans might buy T-shirts," Self said. "But that'd be about it. Winning a conference title means you had a good year. But to make it special, you've got to do well in March."
Self paused. "At least in some people's minds," he said.
The next 10 days will feature some of the most compelling races for conference championships that we've seen in years.
Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State are battling it out the Big Ten. Georgetown, Marquette and Louisville are positioned near the top of the Big East. Kansas and Kansas State are tied for the Big 12 lead and the Pac-12 is wide open.
But does anyone care?
More and more these days, a season is judged on where a team finishes in the NCAA tournament -- not on how it fared in the conference standings.
Two seasons ago, Kansas went 35-3 and won the Big 12 title. But those Jayhawks are still hissed for losing to VCU in the 2011 Elite Eight.
Last season, Washington failed to get an NCAA bid despite winning the Pac-12's regular-season title.
At Wichita State, the Shockers won the MVC championship for only the second time in 24 years, but coach Gregg Marshall felt like the achievement was undervalued after the Shockers lost to VCU in the first game of the tournament.
"We got a bad draw against a good opponent and didn't play particularly well," Marshall said. "Even then, we still had a one-possession game at the end against a VCU team that probably should've beat Indiana in the next round and gone to the Sweet 16.
"We got back [to Wichita] and everyone was 'Ohhhhhhhh.' They were so disappointed. I was like, 'Man, I thought we had a great season.'"
That's what makes the NCAA tournament both beautiful and maddening. It can turn 35-win campaigns into failures and crown champions who, for most of the season, appeared deeply flawed. It's the ultimate equalizer.
That's great for a team such as the 2011 Connecticut Huskies, who won the national championship despite finishing in a tie for ninth place in the Big East. But it has to be frustrating for coaches such as Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, whose Panthers won the Big East title the same season with a 15-3 record. That Pittsburgh team will be remembered more for losing to Butler in the Round of 32.
"You could be ranked in the top 10 in the country the whole year," Purdue's Matt Painter said, "but if you lose in the first or second round, people look at you like you're a failure.
"You're not a failure. You're playing on a neutral court, you're playing another really quality team. There are a lot of things that can change the game: where you're playing, who the officials are, who's hurt, who's sick. You get knocked off, and that's how your season is judged.
"Whether it's fair or not, it's reality."
That's why coaches such as Painter -- who won a Big Ten title in 2010 but was knocked out in the Sweet 16 after losing star Robbie Hummel to an injury -- wish there was more of an appreciation for squads that win conference championships
The best team doesn't always end up with the national title. But the best team always emerges as the champion of its conference.
"I've always put a lot of stock in conference championships," Self said. "If you don't make sure it's important to your players, how would you keep them motivated all year long?
"I tell them, 'Why would you want to make a big deal about winning a national championship when you're not even the best team in your league?'"
Self's emphasis on the importance of league titles is evident on his résumé. Dating back to 1998-99, Self's teams at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas have finished first in their respective conference in 12 of 14 seasons. The other two years they finished second.
Gonzaga's Mark Few also posted a tough-to-fathom streak. From 2001-11, Few led the Bulldogs to 11 straight West Coast Conference crowns. The record for consecutive league championships is 13 by UCLA from 1967-79. The first nine of those titles came under Wooden.
"I don't think people understand how difficult it is," Few said. "It's an eight, nine, 10-week journey. Your conference opponents know you better than anybody, so they're always prepared. You have to have sustained excellence over a two- or three-month period.
"The NCAA tournament is a quick deal."
Few said Gonzaga's 11 straight first-place finishes in the WCC didn't generate much buzz until last season, when the Zags finished second behind Saint Mary's.
"It was kind of funny," Few said. "When we finished second last year, [it] was a big deal. Everyone wanted to talk about us getting knocked off. It was mentioned in pretty much everything that was written about us.
"Our fans and everyone around the program got a dose of reality."
Conference championships certainly have greater value at some schools and in certain situations.
Self said more than 3,000 Illinois fans were waiting to greet players when the team bus arrived in Champaign after the Illini won the 2001 Big Ten title, which was only the school's second league crown in 17 seasons. You can bet marketing-savvy Kansas State will put out a commemorative video if the Wildcats catapult ahead of KU and win their first conference crown since 1977. In smaller, one-bid conferences, a first-place finish is usually celebrated more, simply because those schools know they have little chance of a significant run in the NCAA tournament.
On a national level, though, the importance of league titles continues to dwindle. Coaches think they know why.
Painter said the popularity of the NCAA tournament has lured in scores of "casual" fans. Most don't follow college basketball closely until March and most don't have sports backgrounds. The tournament, Painter said, becomes a "social event," with everyone suddenly becoming an expert after filling out a bracket.
"It's great for the tournament," Painter said. "But from a fan's standpoint, there is a pool of people [who] don't understand the game. They don't understand all that goes into winning and losing and the things that can happen. They just react to how you finish and they judge you on that."
Few said the marketing of the tournament and the constant "who's in, who's out?" discussions make it difficult for fans to focus on anything but March Madness.
"You guys [ESPN] are doing bubble watches and bracketology in November," Few said. "It's crazy, ridiculous, NFL-combine-kind-of-coverage. That's all anyone talks about. Is this win going to help them get into the tournament? It's never about the league titles."
"Everything is marketed as 'Road to the Final Four,'" Self said. "It's not 'Road to the conference championship.' But I'm fine with that because it creates more interest in our game.
"When you think about it, it's the same way in football. Who talks about the New England Patriots winning the AFC East? That's a big deal to those players and to those coaches. But for the fans, it's, 'Yeah, but did you get to the Super Bowl?'
"It's just the reality of the environment that we live in."
A: Steve Alford -- The former Indiana star doesn't receive nearly as much credit for what's he has accomplished as New Mexico's head coach. Saturday's come-from-behind victory over Colorado State put the Lobos in position to win their fourth Mountain West Conference title in five years. Considering the strength of the league, that's an amazing feat. Others schools have tried to lure Alford in the past, but it's obvious he's happy in Albuquerque.
B-plus: Tennessee's future -- The Volunteers' chances of making the NCAA tournament received a huge boost Tuesday when Cuonzo Martin's squad upset No. 8 Florida in Knoxville. The win was the sixth in a row for the Vols, who are 17-10 overall. As exciting as things have been at Tennessee the past few weeks, next year looks even more promising. Leading scorer Jordan McRae will return in 2013-14 along with leading rebounder Jarnell Stokes and assists leader Trae Golden. The Vols also will get a major boost from big-time recruit Robert Hubbs and from the return of Jeronne Maymon, who received a medical redshirt this season. Maymon averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds as a junior.
C: Memphis under pressure - A lot of analysts, including myself, were singing the Tigers' praises during their 18-game winning streak, even thought it was achieved largely against a weak Conference USA schedule. Josh Pastner's squad just looked different, more cohesive and confident, I thought. Memphis, though, provided fuel for its detractors Tuesday. Finally matched against a decent opponent on the road, the No. 19 Tigers fell to Xavier 64-62 at the Cintas Center. Memphis didn't look ready to play from the get-go, trailing by as many as 13 points in the second half before storming back to take the lead. But some horrid free throw shooting, a terrible, mindless foul committed by Geron Johnson and a crucial turnover by Chris Crawford cost Memphis the game.
D: Saint Mary's schedule -- Randy Bennett is obviously a great coach, and Matthew Dellavedova is one of the top point guards in college basketball. But I won't feel too sorry for the Gaels if they miss the NCAA tournament. Saint Mary's' nonconference schedule was embarrassing. Other than last week's win over Creighton (a BracketBusters game scheduled for them), who have they really beat? Heck, who have they played? I suppose a Nov. 15 victory at Utah State deserves mention, and overcoming a raucous crowd to top BYU in Provo was impressive. But other than that, there's not one thing on the Gaels' schedule that impresses me. Bennett needs to schedule tougher in the future.
F: West Virginia in the Big 12, Missouri in the SEC -- Sorry, but these two moves just aren't working. It just doesn't feel right. West Virginia is more than 800 miles away from every Big 12 school. The travel demands on the Mountaineers are ridiculous when combined with the responsibilities that come with being a student. Missouri is more suited for the Big Ten or the Big 12. Their decision to move to the SEC was a poor one, especially when it comes to football. It's a choice the Tigers will come to regret, if they don't already.
THIS WEEK'S POLLS
Yes, there are two of them this week. (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Jason King, Myron Medcalf and Dana O'Neil)
Leading candidates for national player of the year:
1. Victor Oladipo, Indiana - 49 (4)
2. Trey Burke, Michigan - 46 (1)
3. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga - 37
4. Otto Porter, Georgetown - 28
5. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State - 21
6. Cody Zeller, Indiana - 20
7. Doug McDermott, Creighton - 19
8. Mason Plumlee, Duke - 12
9. Shane Larkin, Miami - 9
10. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State - 7
Others receiving votes: Jeff Withey, Kansas 5; Ben McLemore, Kansas 4; Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State 4; Seth Curry, Duke 3; Mike Muscala, Bucknell 3; Erick Green, Virginia Tech 3; Kendall Williams, New Mexico 2; Patric Young, Florida 2; Nate Wolters, South Dakota State 1.
Leading candidates for national coach of the year:
1. Jim Larranaga, Miami - 46 (3)
2. Jim Crews, Saint Louis - 40 (1)
3. John Thompson III, Georgetown - 39
4. Buzz Williams, Marquette - 21 (1)
5. Bruce Weber, Kansas State - 17
6. Dana Altman, Oregon - 16
7. Tom Crean, Indiana - 16
8. Tom Izzo, Michigan State - 14
9. Kevin Ollie, Connecticut - 10
10. Steve Alford, New Mexico - 12
Others receiving votes: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State 7; Bo Ryan, Wisconsin, 7; Mark Few, Gonzaga 6; Mike Krzyzewski, Duke 6; Bill Self, Kansas 4; Billy Donovan, Florida 4; Larry Eustachy, Colorado State 4; John Beilein, Michigan 3; John Groce, Illinois 1.
THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW
1. It's easy to assume that Indiana's loss at Minnesota Tuesday means that second-ranked Gonzaga will automatically slide into the No. 1 slot filled by the Hoosiers.
Not so fast.
Before Gonzaga can even think about earning its first No. 1 ranking in school history, the Zags have to beat BYU in Provo Thursday. The Cougars (20-9, 9-5) aren't nearly as good as they've been in the past, but that doesn't mean Gonzaga won't be in for a fight.
"It's one of the toughest places to play in the country," coach Mark Few said by phone Tuesday. "There are going to be about 23,000 fans there screaming at us. It's definitely going to be a test."
If Gonzaga does vault to the top spot in the national rankings, no one should be upset. Anyone who has watched the Zags this season can see that Few's squad is capable of playing with any team in the country. One of the main reasons for Gonzaga's success is 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk, who averages a team-high 17.7 points along with seven rebounds a contest. The only problem with Olynyk's breakthrough season, Few said, is that it has overshadowed another great year by senior forward Elias Harris.
"The funny thing," Few said, "is that Kelly has been the beneficiary of Elias' growth and unselfishness. A good portion of Kelly's baskets have come from Elias making good plays. They're passing so well to each other.
"Elias is going to end up as the leading rebounder in modern Gonzaga history and he's probably going to be third in all-time points. He's had an incredible career."
Harris is averaging 14.5 points and 7.4 rebounds this season.
2. I can't remember a regular-season college basketball game involving more drama than Kansas' 108-96 victory at Iowa State Monday. Here's a quick rundown.
A. The Big 12 office admitted there were "officiating errors" made in the waning seconds of regulation that probably cost the Cyclones the game. The most glaring slip-up occurred when referees failed to whistle Elijah Johnson for a charging foul with the Jayhawks trailing by two with eight seconds remaining. Johnson missed his layup attempt as he fell to the ground, but the rebound was batted into his hands, and Iowa State's Georges Niang was tooted for a ticky-tack foul as he tried to strip the ball away from Johnson. That call sent Johnson to the free throw line, where he made two free throws to send the game to overtime.
B. As the final seconds ticked away in the extra period with Kansas leading 106-96, Iowa State conceded defeat and stopped applying defensive pressure. Rather than let the clock run out, Johnson raced down the court and threw down an uncontested dunk as the buzzer sounded. He apologized during his postgame television interview with Holly Rowe and during KU's press conference a few minutes later.
C. Iowa State fans pelted Kansas' players with plastic megaphones and cups as they exited the court and ran toward the tunnel leading to their locker room. Another fan had to be restrained by a security guard after making his way onto the court and attempting to get in the face of Bill Self.
D. News surfaced later that evening that two Iowa State fans had directed racial slurs toward Johnson on Twitter.
Self addressed the irate fan and the Twitter situation on Tuesday. He said he never felt like the fan -- who he was later told was a somewhat prominent Iowa State donor -- was "rushing" or charging at him.
"I really think I could've taken him without any problem," Self joked. "It was not a serious deal at all. Maybe his body language made it look different. But I didn't feel in the least like anything would come of that. It was a fan voicing [his opinion]. He was a little animated but his words weren't bad."
Self wasn't as forgiving about the threatening tweets in an interview with Gary Bedore of the Lawrence Journal-World.
"That is sad," the coach said. "That person should be investigated and looked at. You can't take things like that for granted. The person making the statements in that situation needs to be looked into."
Des Moines television station WOI-DT reported Tuesday that Iowa State police were investigating the threats.
3. I can't help but feel a little sorry for Washington State coach Ken Bone, who is rumored to be on the hot seat because of his team's 11-17 record and 2-13 mark in the Pac-12.
If you look beyond the surface, Bone should actually be commended for keeping the Cougars competitive after kicking Reggie Moore, one of the Pac-12's top point guards, off the team prior to the season because of a series of off-court incidents. Right then, Washington State -- which was already short-handed -- could've thrown in the towel. Instead, the Cougars have continued to improve and have been able to compete with most teams on their schedule.
It's amazing how many bad breaks this team has caught. Seven of Washington State's losses are by four points or fewer, and five are by two points or fewer. Two of them came in overtime and another occurred against Texas A&M on a 25-foot, buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Bone is a good coach who is praised by his competitors for his solid preparation and X's and O's. "I've always hated playing against his teams," one Pac-12 coach said. "He's an excellent coach and good person, too." Washington State made it to the NIT semifinals in 2011 (losing to Wichita State) and the CBI championship last season (losing to Pittsburgh).
If Bone gets a little more talent he'll have the Cougars back on the map. I'm not sure firing him is the right move.
4. Speaking of coaching rumors, I love what Jamie Dixon has done at Pittsburgh. Even though he has yet to take the Panthers to the Final Four, Dixon is generally regarded as one of the top 10 or 15 coaches in the game thanks to his success with the Panthers, who have finished either first or second in the Big East three of the past four years.
Part of me, though, thinks Dixon would be wise to take the USC job that so many people think he will be offered. Pittsburgh will always play second fiddle to Duke and North Carolina in the ACC -- and hey, sometimes change is good for everyone. Pittsburgh went just 5-13 in the Big East last season and at 9-6 has been a bit underwhelming this year. Nothing wrong with a fresh start. Plus, Dixon is a Southern California native.
Things could interesting if Dixon takes the USC job. Who would go to Pitt? Would UCLA's Ben Howland return to his old stomping grounds? Or the better question is, would Pittsburgh want him? How about Arizona's Sean Miller, a Pitt alum? He'd be the perfect candidate for that job. And who could get the Arizona job if Miller left?
It could be an eventful offseason.
5. Former Indiana and Alabama-Birmingham coach Mike Davis is doing a heck of a job in his first season as coach at Texas Southern. At 14-2, the Tigers are tied with Southern University for first place in the SWAC. The two schools meet Thursday at Texas Southern in a game that probably will be for the league title. The job Davis has done is even more impressive considering he wasn't hired until Aug. 2 after the abrupt resignation of Tony Harvey. The Tigers haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2003.
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it. Note: Current players were not considered.
Duke's All-Mike Krzyzewski team
G: Jay Williams -- Won NCAA title in 2001 and the Wooden Award in 2002
G: Johnny Dawkins -- Duke's second all-time leading scorer was national POY in 1987
F: Shane Battier -- Swept the national player of the years awards after winning 2001 title
F: Danny Ferry -- 1989 national player of the year owns single-game mark for points (58)
F: Christian Laettner -- All-American is the only player to start in four straight Final Fours
G/F: Grant Hill -- Two-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion
G: J.J. Redick -- School's all-time leading scorer; one of 13 players to have jersey retired
F: Shelden Williams -- Duke's career leader in blocks and rebounds
Sizzling: Otto Porter, Georgetown
Slumping: Ben McLemore, Kansas
Great players you probably haven't seen: Leonard Washington, Wyoming; C.J. Harris, Wake Forest
Great players you can't miss: Victor Oladipo, Indiana; Trey Burke, Michigan
Boy, has he improved: Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State
Boy, has he regressed: Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State
Quietly getting better: Cal and Providence
What the heck has happened to: Cincinnati and Baylor
Dude can rebound: Eric Moreland, Oregon State
Deserves more credit: Brandon Triche, Syracuse
Knows how to handle a news conference: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
Makes a fool of himself in a news conference: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Tip your hat to: Erick Green, Virginia Tech
No one plays harder than: Marquette and VCU
Freshman who should be getting more attention: Jakarr Sampson, St. John's
Get well soon: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Give the man a job: Jim Crews, Saint Louis
Time for the boot: Bill Carmody, Northwestern; Stan Heath, South Florida
Wondering if anyone will hire: Billy Gillispie
My Final Four: Indiana, Louisville, Gonzaga, Duke
at Duke 77, Miami 67: It appears as if the Hurricanes will be catching Duke one game before the return of injured forward Ryan Kelly, who is hoping to be back for a March 5 tilt with Virginia Tech on senior night. Still, the Blue Devils will have plenty of motivation following a 90-67 road loss to Miami on Jan. 23. Miami's play has regressed in recent weeks.
at Syracuse 69, Louisville 68: The Orange beat Louisville on its own court back in January, so it's only natural to assume Syracuse will win this one at home. No matter what happens, I still think Louisville is good enough to win the NCAA title. Rick Pitino's squad has won six of its past seven games, with the only setback coming in that five-overtime heartbreaker at Notre Dame. The Cardinals are also in the hunt for the Big East title.
at UCLA 71, Arizona 65: The Bruins averaged 81.5 points in back-to-back road wins at Stanford and USC and have won four of their past five overall. Both teams are battling for the Pac-12 title along with Cal and Oregon. UCLA beat Arizona 84-73 Jan. 24 in Tucson. "College GameDay" will be on hand for this one. Should be fun.
at VCU 72, Butler 66: This matchup features two of the top three teams in the Atlantic 10. The Rams haven't been as dominant as they were earlier in the season. VCU has won six of its past seven games, but three of the victories have been by single digits. And they were waxed by Saint Louis 76-62 on Feb. 19. Still, this is one of the top defensive teams in America. Shaka Smart's squad will be too much for Butler at home.
at Marquette 55, Notre Dame 52: This is a huge game for the Golden Eagles, who are hoping to win at least a share of the Big East title. Marquette, which has yet to play Notre Dame this season, is coming off an impressive win against Syracuse. Notre Dame will be high on confidence after back-to-back convincing victories over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Wichita State 67, at Creighton 60: Not many teams in the country have experienced a free fall quite like Creighton, which has lost six of its past 11 games after opening the season 17-1. Much like last year, the biggest issue for the Bluejays is that they are soft defensively. Wichita State, meanwhile, is finally healthy. The Shockers are looking to win the MVC title outright for the second straight year.
at Michigan 66, Michigan State 62: The Spartans embarrassed John Beilein's Michigan squad 75-52 in East Lansing on Feb. 12. I don't see this one being lopsided. Michigan had a nice win against Illinois last weekend and should be feeling much better about itself by the time Michigan State rolls into town Sunday. Trey Burke -- who is averaging 18.9 points and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field -- won't let his team lose this one.
Wil Jenny's, Overland Park, Kan.: The po' boys at "Mother's" and "Johnny's" in New Orleans are hard to top. And I've had more than my share of delicious, authentic tortas from food trucks in Texas and Arizona. Bottom line: I love a good sandwich. And after years of traveling, the best one I've found is right here in my own backyard. The "Louis Mueller" at Wil Jenny's is sin on a plate. Thickly sliced Texas-style brisket, barbecue sauce, candied jalapenos and a light spread of cream cheese on Texas toast has kept this delicacy at the top of my sandwich list for the past few years. The Mueller's list of ingredients also includes red onions, but I substitute onion straws for those. Because of its Southern fare (barbecue, chicken fried steak, fajitas, enchiladas, burgers, green chile mac and cheese), Wil Jenny's is probably my favorite all-around restaurant in the Kansas City area. Never have I been served a bad meal there.
Secret Pizza, Las Vegas: Rarely do I go to Las Vegas these days and stay anywhere but the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The Marquee nightclub is great, the pool scene is one of the best on The Strip, and I also love that the property is run by Marriott, which means points, points and more points. I'll be honest, though: The main reason Cosmopolitan is my favorite hotel is because of Secret Pizza. Yes, you read that correctly. My hotel decisions in Sin City are based on food. Secret Pizza doesn't have a sign -- or heck, even an official name. Located on the third floor, just one level up from Marquee, Secret Pizza (as it has been tagged by locals) is a tiny, garage-size room located at the end of a long corridor that'd be easy to miss if the lines didn't spill out into the main area. The waits are often long -- especially around 2-4 a.m. -- but the New York-style slices are well worth it. Always fresh, always crispy, and (almost) always a good variety to choose from. The slices at Secret Pizza are better than any I've ever had in New York. Another tip for folks staying at Cosmopolitan: The burgers at "The Henry" are top notch, and the "Wicked Spoon" buffet includes a gelato stand. You're welcome.
The next 10 days will feature some compelling races for conference championships. But does anyone care? The importance of league titles continues to dwindle as March glory trumps regular-season triumphs.