Mac Engel

Big 12 still has a Kansas problem ... no one can unseat Jayhawks

Wayne Selden Jr. and Kansas have a grip on Big 12 basketball titles and no other Big 12 team seems able to loosen it.
Wayne Selden Jr. and Kansas have a grip on Big 12 basketball titles and no other Big 12 team seems able to loosen it. AP

Imagine the horror and outrage if Texas, TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor or any one team won the Big 12 title in football for more than a decade straight.

There would be meetings, conference calls, committees — maybe even Baylor’s PR firm would be hired to fix the image that it was a weak league.

Minus the committees or conference calls, this is essentially what has happened to the Big 12’s basketball image.

Big 12 basketball may be stacked but it still has a Kansas problem. The Jayhawks are killing this league through no fault of their own.

This year was set up for some team other than Kansas to win the Big 12 title, but the Jayhawks are going to do it again. Sixth-ranked Kansas came to the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman as the ’dog to the third-ranked Sooners but left with a 76-72 win.

In case you are counting, and barring an unforeseen collapse, KU is likely going to earn at least a share of its 12th straight Big 12 championship.

It is a highly under-appreciated achievement, but it should not happen in this era.

I asked Kansas coach Bill Self if one team dominating a league hurts the image of the Big 12.

“I hate saying this, I think it’s hurt the perception of our league,” Self said.

Big 12, shame on you. No one team in a power conference such as the Big 12 should routinely embarrass the rest of the league the way Kansas has for more than a decade. Not even Kentucky has done this in the SEC.

This is not the 1960s when UCLA was winning everything but NBA titles under Hall of Fame coach John Wooden. This is 2016 and countless teams are burning through cash to win in college basketball.

Whether it was Oklahoma, Iowa State or West Virginia, this was the year Kansas would finish second in the league.

Oklahoma has the college National Player of the Year in Buddy Hield, but on Saturday Buddy’s buddies failed him, and Kansas has been through this enough that it is not easily spooked, despite the environment.

More than 12,200 people jammed into the Lloyd Noble Center on Saturday, along with ESPN’s College Game Day basketball crew. Also on hand were Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan and former OU and TCU coach Billy Tubbs. They were all here to see KU’s streak essentially end.

Given the way Oklahoma played at Kansas in January in a classic three-overtime Jayhawks win, the Sooners were sure that this time they had the Jayhawks.

Saturday was a wonderful game — it featured four ties and 13 lead changes — but in the end it was the same thing. Big 12 Team X gets close, KU wins. In this case, OU led by three with 3:18 remaining and Kansas won anyway.

OU had a chance to tie the game with 25 seconds remaining when Hield was fouled by KU guard Devonte Graham. But Hield missed the second free throw. Hield doesn’t often miss free throws — he’s a 90 percent free throw shooter.

Hield was good on Saturday — he finished with 24 points — but he was nowhere as dominant as he was in these teams’ previous meeting when he scored 46.

Instead, some KU player named Devonte Graham was the guy; he scored 27 points and carried his team after fellow starter Frank Mason fouled out late in his attempt to chase Hield. Graham originally signed with Appalachian State coming out of high school and now he is burning Hield in Norman.

Hield should not feel too badly. In this prolonged run of KU titles other great players and coaches have tried to unseat KU as outright champion and failed.

Former Texas stars and current NBA studs Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge couldn’t do it under Rick Barnes.

The No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, former Sooners monster Blake Griffin, missed. The same for Kansas State’s Michael Beasley. Iowa State tried with Royce White and flopped. Texas A&M took a good swing under Billy Gillispie and Acie Law. Bobby Knight at Texas Tech could never do it.

“Clearly, Kansas has been the best. That is not a coincidence — you win 11 in a row,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. “I think they believed they could come into this building and win. That’s hard with this crowd and this atmosphere.”

You would think that one time in 12 years one of these good teams, some of which have made the Final Four, would be able to knock Kansas down to second at least once.

Even the Kansas players concede that point.

“I don’t think people realize how difficult of a conference this is,” Graham said. “Night in and night out facing Top 25 opponents, the best players in the country, and to have 11 straight conference championships is huge. Some people can’t even get one in.”

And that is the problem. Kansas has been so good it has created the perception that somehow the Big 12 can’t be as good as the ACC or Big Ten because the same team keeps winning.

“When people say we have won 11 in a row, we have, but they don’t talk about the years we shared it,” said Self, whose team has shared three titles in this run. “The deal is [people think], ‘The league can’t be that strong if one team is winning it’ which is not true at all. That’s ridiculous.”

It is ridiculous and it’s not Self’s problem.

No committee or conference call is required, but this problem is on Kruger, Shaka Smart, Bob Huggins, Steve Prohm and the rest of the Big 12 coaches who should see this streak as an affront to the league.

KU is the best team, again, and its run of conference titles is amazing. But it’s 2016 and this should not happen.

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