LAWRENCE — It’s a streak, but it’s not “The Streak.”
Without it, though, Kansas basketball’s unparalleled run of consecutive conference championships — a stretch now as synonymous with the program as the colors crimson and blue — would’ve been over before it even began.
KU has won 27 consecutive conference openers, an incredible run that dates back to the 1991-92 campaign. It even predates the Big 12, a conference the Jayhawks have won a national record-breaking 14 straight times. That’s a distinction that wouldn’t exist if not for the success in league openers — the program has retained the streak four times via a first-place tie, including in Year 1 (2004-05).
The fifth-ranked Jayhawks (11-1) will look to extend that streak — and take the first step toward continuing “The Streak” — when they host No. 23 Oklahoma (11-1) at 8 p.m. Wednesday inside Allen Fieldhouse.
“I don’t know if you talk (to players) about the league race getting off to a fast start. You just talk about playing well early,” KU coach Bill Self said. “It’s such a long grind. Eighteen games is a long time. You don’t want to put too much emphasis on one game. But in the big picture, it certainly behooves you to get off to a good start.”
A legitimate threat to snap the Jayhawks’ stretch of successful conference openers, the Sooners may also be the biggest roadblock in the way of a 15th straight conference crown.
OU has played the second-toughest schedule of any major program, trailing only KU, and picked up nonconference victories over Florida, Notre Dame, Wichita State, USC, Creighton and, most recently, a 76-69 overtime win Dec. 21 at Northwestern. With one-and-done standout Trae Young now in the NBA, the Sooners boast more balance — Lon Kruger’s squad has featured a different leading scorer across each of its last four contests, all victories.
“They should be on a serious uptick right now,” Self said. “You could tell their guys are having fun playing with each other. They really share the ball well.”
Self is particularly impressed with the Sooners’ defense, ranked seventh nationally in adjusted efficiency at 90.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to advanced analytics outlet KenPom.com.
OU shares that seventh-ranked distinction, fittingly enough, with the Jayhawks.
“Statistically, they are very good defensively,” Self said. “They are a very good rebounding team. They are bigger than what you think. When you can play (6-foot-9 forward Brady) Manek at the four and (6-10 center Jamuri) McNeace at the five, that’s as tall as anybody in our league, I believe.”
The Sooners are double-digit underdogs Wednesday, likely a reflection of the injured McNeace’s doubtful status for the contest. Still, Kruger will have as good a weapon as any in the conference in senior guard Christian James, who is fourth in the Big 12 in scoring (17.9 points per game) and seventh in rebounding (7.2).
Self said James at this point is the league’s most improved player.
“Even though he was a good player last year, he’s a terrific player. He’s definitely a first-team all-leaguer,” Self said. ”... Maybe confidence, maybe freedom (have been key). But certainly being able to get his own (scoring) on his own, and every time he shoots the ball you think it’s going in. ...
“He looks awfully good to me — and everybody else.”
In the Silver Lake native Kruger, the Sooners have “one of the most respected” and “one of the most liked” coaches in the sport, Self said, and someone who “does as good a job as anybody in playing mismatches.” If James is the frontrunner for the league’s most improved player, Kruger may be the leader in the clubhouse for coach of the year, at least through nonconference play — the Sooners were picked eighth in the Big 12′s preseason coaches poll.
Any skeptics of Kruger’s coaching ability need to turn no further than last year’s 85-80 victory over the Jayhawks in Norman, Okla., a nine-point comeback over the final 10 minutes spurred in large part by Kruger’s deployment of the “Poke-a-Doke” strategy of intentionally sending KU center Udoka Azubuike to the free-throw line.
“You have to win that game, and we didn’t,” Self said. ”... You have to take advantage of winning those close games when you get an opportunity, because there will be a lot of them.”