LAWRENCE — Ebbs and flows have defined Kansas basketball’s season, particularly of late with the team losing three of its last five Big 12 contests.
The silver lining, if there is one? The No. 13-ranked Jayhawks appear to be in good company.
“You look around college basketball — guys, we’re not the only ones that have been up and down,” KU coach Bill Self said Monday. “It’s a joke out there right now.”
Pay heed, KU fans.
The Jayhawks (19-6, 8-4 Big 12) sit one game back of Texas Tech in the league standings with six to play, their record streak of 13 consecutive conference championships in serious jeopardy for the first time in years. KU has won the Big 12 outright in each of the last four seasons and did so by multiple games in three of those campaigns.
Self didn’t necessarily begrudge any Jayhawk supporters hitting the panic button ahead of the team’s next contest, a 6 p.m. Tuesday tilt at Iowa State (13-11, 4-8). He did, however, feel the need to put the team’s relative “struggles” into context for the fan base.
“Whether our fans do that or not, hey, welcome to the real world. I mean, good God,” Self said. “Hey, Duke feels the same way. North Carolina feels the same way. That’s life. This is what’s unbelievable to me about our fan base, and I love ’em and they’re great, but for 13 years we’ve gotten a T-shirt when we won the league. I mean, it was that big a deal we’d get a T-shirt. And now that we’re a game behind, the heavens are falling.”
Behind Self during this answer was a wall outside the KU locker room that displays pictures of the championship rings the team has also received for winning the conference, one of the additional perks Self went on to acknowledge. But Self’s greater point stood — that this, not KU’s 13-year run of regular-season excellence, is the life virtually all college basketball fans must deal with, from blueblood to bubble program.
“Our fan base, if this is how they’re feeling, then they should understand and appreciate all the emotions fans should have to go through, because it’s going to be a struggle this year,” Self continued. “Doesn’t mean it’s over, but it’s definitely going to be a struggle.”
The final leg of Self’s frank answer was a call to action of sorts directed at that same fan base.
“We probably need them more than we ever have needed ’em,” Self said. “They’ve got to rally around that as well.”
Self’s point about parity — not only in the Big 12, but nationwide — was accurate.
Virginia ascended to No. 1 in this week’s AP poll despite losing Saturday, while traditional powerhouses such as Duke (No. 12), North Carolina (No. 14), Arizona (No. 17) and Kentucky (unranked) have found consistency elusive. Conference-wise, last-place ISU has home victories against Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma, each by an average of 14 points. Sixth-place Oklahoma State has wins at KU and WVU but has fallen at home to TCU and Baylor by double-digit margins. OU, ranked fourth nationally just four weeks ago, has lost six of its last eight.
“I mean, good gracious. Every win is a bonus, home or away,” Self said of the Big 12. “We’ve still got the vast majority of things in front of us, but what we’ve done is put ourselves in a situation where we probably have as tough a schedule left as anybody in our league.
“If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it the hard way, but it’ll mean more when it gets done if we’re able to do it.”
In a perfect world, “The Streak” wouldn’t occupy any head space among KU players facing much bigger problems than defending a run that began when they were in grade school. As they’re finding out, though, that’s much easier said than done.
“The streak is always thrown at us,” Self said. “Although we don’t talk about the streak, I know that’s kind of the elephant in the room, so to speak, at least from what I’ve been told, and we need to get away from that and concentrate on just playing a game at a time.”
VICK ON ‘UPTICK’ — While Self hadn’t settled on his next starting lineup ahead of the team’s Monday practice, he did appear to leave a window open to Lagerald Vick’s return to that unit.
Vick was removed as a starter two games ago ahead of a home victory over TCU. Self said the junior guard’s handling of the situation has been encouraging despite Vick’s ongoing slump.
“I really feel like Lagerald’s attitude, in my opinion, has been very good,” Self said. “It’s just he didn’t make shots, and sometimes when you don’t make shots it doesn’t look like you play as well. ... He hasn’t caught any breaks, but I feel like he’s on an uptick.”
Vick has scored 19 points on a combined 7-for-18 shooting with five rebounds over 61 minutes his last two games.
“I know what we need to do to win, in my opinion. Now, how do we get that?” Self said. ”... What’s best for our team is to have our five best players out there playing the majority of the minutes. That’s what’s best for our team. It just hasn’t played out that way in league play consistently. Hopefully we’ll get it together.”
KU UNDESERVING OF TWO-SEED ... YET — Revealed as a two-seed in the West Region during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament “Bracket Preview” show, KU appeared to have exceeded Self’s expectations for the sneak peek.
“From my standpoint, I don’t think we deserve that. I don’t,” Self said. “I think that we need to play well from this point forward to be in that conversation, and we haven’t done that yet.”
The Jayhawks will learn their actual fate on Selection Sunday, this year falling on March 11.