This finally looked like the year that Kansas's streak of 11 straight Big 12 titles would end. The Jayhawks have no dependable big man and no dominant one-and-done player, and they're in the midst of the deepest Big 12 season ever.
Oklahoma should have been able to knock Kansas off its perch, right? Or maybe Iowa State? West Virginia? Only here we are, with just five games left in conference play, and a flawed Jayhawks team is in sole possession of first place. That includes two wins against Oklahoma and no losses in the past six games for a team peaking at exactly the right time.
Why'd we ever doubt them?
With a 12th consecutive Big 12 crown in sight, Kansas coach Bill Self's streak is arguably the second most impressive feat of coaching in college basketball history, behind John Wooden's seven-straight national titles. Given how much parity there is in college basketball these days, where a single team can't dominate the landscape, it may be even more impressive.
Winning one conference title is hard. Winning 12 in a row is borderline impossible. Coaches tend to favor certain team makeups and formulas for success, and it's not possible to have a perfectly suited team every single year. Sustained success requires winning with different types of teams, and with less than ideal lineups. Throughout Kansas's streak, Self has managed to do exactly that.
Take this year's Jayhawks: contrary to preseason expectations, they're winning largely without the help of two superstar freshmen. Carlton Bragg and Cheick Diallo were supposed to be the next two one-and-done sensations to come through Lawrence, but neither player has made much of a mark yet.
Instead, Kansas is winning with a lineup dominated by two junior guards, a senior forward, and a sophomore guard who was initially headed to Appalachian State. That's nearly the same lineup as last season's team, which bowed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It's a dramatically different group from a squad that two seasons ago was led by star freshmen and NBA Draft Lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
Back then, the Jayhawks dominated inside the paint; today Kansas is a dominant shooting team. Here's the progression, from Shot Analytics:
Thanks to an outstanding group of shooters in guards Wayne Selden, Devonte' Graham, and Frank Mason, Kansas has its most efficient offense since 2009-10. The Jayhawks rank fifth in the country in three-point percentage, the highest they've ever ranked under Self.
It's not just the development of the shooters, either. While Self has proven capable of winning with one-and-done players, he's also shown an ability to develop forwards. Despite often functioning as an undersized center, 6'8'' Perry Ellis is having arguably the best year of his career: he ranks No. 10 nationally in the KenPom.com player of the year rankings, with an offensive rating of 118.8. That has helped the Jayhawks have relative success under the basket to complement their three-point shooting.
The only way Kansas was going to win the Big 12 this year—particularly if it wasn't going to have much help from its freshmen—was if everyone else on the roster got better, and the team changed its playing to reflect its strengths. That's a tall task, but if we've learned one thing over the past 11 seasons and counting, it's that Self is up to the challenge.