In his first news conference as this year’s outright champion of the Big 12, Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self wanted to make sure everyone recognized what the league’s second-place finisher had accomplished.
"Baylor deserves a lot of credit," said Self, speaking after the top-ranked Jayhawks’ 66-62 victory over Texas Tech at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas. "They’ve had an unbelievable year."
That said, and considering the season KU has put together since its early-conference defeat to the Bears, Self’s squad has more than earned the right to hoard this trophy to itself.
"But our guys deserve the lion’s share of it," Self continued, "for grinding."
The Jayhawks (28-3, 17-1 Big 12) enter the postseason as arguably the nation’s hottest team, winners of 16 straight since that 67-55 setback to the Bears (26-4, 15-3) on Jan. 11 in Lawrence. KU’s other two defeats came by a combined three points — a 68-66 season-opening loss to Duke in New York that saw the Jayhawks commit a staggering 28 turnovers, and a 56-55 loss at Villanova on Dec. 21 in which the visitors blew a four-point lead in the game’s final 90 seconds.
Even more noteworthy? KU wasn’t at full strength in any of its three defeats, with senior guard Isaiah Moss missing the loss to the Blue Devils with a hamstring injury, junior guard Marcus Garrett leaving early in the game at Villanova with an ankle injury and sophomore guard Devon Dotson suffering a hip flexor injury in the first half of the first meeting with Baylor.
The likely No. 1-overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, KU has Self feeling confident entering next week’s Big 12 Tournament and beyond — with one area worth monitoring, however.
"We went to the Final Four a couple years ago and I felt good about that team, really good. ... The (two) years prior I thought we had the best team in America both years and we lost both in the Elite Eight. So yeah, it’s happened before," said Self, responding when asked if he’s ever felt more confident about a team entering the postseason. "But there is something about this team that is scary from our perspective because we don’t really make a lot of shots, but there’s also something that’s comforting and gives you confidence, is that other people usually don’t either. We’re going to have to grind it out and win on that (defensive) end."
That mindset has been this team’s calling card, mostly out of necessity.
The Jayhawks, who have the nation’s leader in field goal shooting percentage in senior center Udoka Azubuike (74.8%), are converting 54.9% of their 2-point tries, good for the 14th-best mark nationally. However, Self's group ranks just 132nd in 3-point shooting accuracy at 34.1%.
KU went 21 of 44 on 2s but 4 of 17 on 3s against Texas Tech.
"Our defense was pretty solid," Self said. "When a team shoots (26) 3s but they go 8 of 26 and they’re a team that’s probably the best 3-point percentage team in our league, that’s pretty good. And once again, to get outscored 12 points behind the arc is not a formula for success, but fortunately for us we were able to get enough easy 2s to offset the difference."
Despite Self-described "ugly offense" in contests at West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas, TCU and Texas Tech, the Jayhawks came out on top of all of those matchups en route to a 9-0 record in their league road slate. The win over the Horned Frogs, a 60-46 outcome in a defensive clinic, may serve as the best blueprint for KU’s path to success in March.
KU boasts the nation's fourth-ranked 2-point defense (42.4% opponent shooting percentage) and 40th-ranked 3-point defense (30.5%).
"I think we guard," said Self, responding to a question about what’s led to the road conquests. "There’s that old adage that I certainly didn’t come up with, but defense travels. For the most part that’s been the case with us. … The consistent thing has been the defense."
Silvio stays put
Silvio De Sousa was returned to the bench Saturday after the completion of a 12-game suspension served for his role in his team’s late-game brawl with Kansas State on Jan. 21, but the junior forward didn’t appear against the Red Raiders, with Azubuike and sophomore forward David McCormack handling all the action at the five-spot.
De Sousa, who is averaging 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in 8.2 minutes per game, didn’t appear because neither Azubuike nor McCormack found themselves in foul trouble, Self said.
"I’m sure Silvio’s disappointed, but we’ve played pretty well the last 12 games," Self said. "Certainly if we can utilize him we will, but I’m not going to take minutes away from David just to make sure Silvio gets in the game."