At the bottom of Kansas’ team poster, which features the Jayhawks’ four seniors, sits the message in small type.
The motto is brief and to the point: Rosters Change, Expectations Don’t.
For Kansas basketball, expectations always run high. And why shouldn’t they?
The Jayhawks (31-5), who open the NCAA South Regional against Michigan (28-7) at 6:37 p.m. Friday at Cowboys Stadium, have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 16th time since 1990. KU is one of three No. 1 seeds remaining in the tournament. Being a No. 1 seed has almost become old hat in Lawrence, Kan. Only twice since 1990 has Kansas been seeded lower than fourth.
Yes, winning is expected at Kansas, but not just by its passionate fan base. Coach Bill Self opened the season Oct. 12 by reminding a packed crowd at Allen Fieldhouse that “rosters change, expectations don’t.”
KU’s players are lured by the winning tradition and carry the same high expectations as their fans. No Sweet 16? Unacceptable. No Final Four? No way. About the only reasonable finish for most Jayhawks fans is in the NCAA Championship game.
“I think it’s a good thing,” KU senior Kevin Young said Thursday before the Jayhawks practiced in front of several thousand fans at Cowboys Stadium. “It pushes us as players. No matter whose name is on the back of the jersey it doesn’t matter, it still says Kansas on the front. I think we take a lot of pride in that.”
The expectations among their fans may come with the territory at Kansas, but those lofty goals often create a double-edged sword. At the first sign of struggle — such as the Jayhawks’ three-game losing streak in February — some of that lust for winning can turn negative. Comparisons to past teams are inevitable and the accomplishments of former stars are always there like carrots.
“It might be kind of hard to come to Kansas because you’ve got so much legacy, so much to live up to,” said Kansas freshman Ben McLemore, who pivoted quickly to extol the positives. “Which is great, you want to play in a program that has stuff like that so you can be a part of it, and right now that’s what we’re doing, trying to be part of something great.”
Since the 1989-90 season, KU could make a case that it’s the most successful sports program — pro or college — in the country. Here’s a quick rundown:
• 11 seasons with at least 30 wins.
• Averaged 29 wins per season.
• Six Final Fours.
• Four championship games.
• 2008 national title.
• Seeded No. 1 or 2 15 times
The success, of course, helps KU attract some of the best recruits in the country.
“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” said Young, one of four senior starters for KU. “There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history here.”
Senior Jeff Withey, who has started the last two seasons, including last year when the Jayhawks lost the NCAA Championship Game to Kentucky, said his third trip to the Sweet 16 could easily be taken for granted, but said his team realizes the fourth-seeded Wolverines don’t allow that luxury, especially for the KU seniors.
“We know it’s our last go-around and we’re not going to take it for granted,” he said. “A lot of times you could take being in the Sweet 16 for granted, even a couple minutes on the floor you can’t take for granted. You don’t get that time back, so you’ve got to always go hard. We know that, and we’re going to play like that.”
McLemore, who leads KU with a 15.8 scoring average, said moments like this are why he chose to be a Jayhawk.
“That’s why I came here, to be in situations like this and play in big games like this,” he said. “KU is a great program and the fans are great and the support system is great. The players really bond together as a real family. That’s what we are, we’re a big family. When you come to KU you expect big things.”