It's March, the time when basketball teams go from having a good season to having a great season. This years Jayhawk team has already had a very good season. They exceeded expectations in many ways while winning the Big 12 regular season title for the 9th consecutive year. That alone is enough to place this group of seniors and Ben McLemore among the many teams that Jayhawk fans will remember and talk about over the years.
What's left on the table? Tomorrow Kansas will take on either West Virginia or Texas Tech in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament in the first of nine possible games remaining. Play in all nine and this team goes from good to great. Win all nine, or win the right eight and this team becomes one of the all time greats.
Sometimes it isn't the best team that wins the title. Sometimes those teams come up short. In 1985-1986 Kansas had a pretty incredible lineup and the same could be said for 1996-1997. The Jayhawks came up short in both of those seasons. The 2007-2008 National Title team was always good, but heading into the Final Four with three other no. 1 seeds they were probably considered the least likely to come out on top. History has changed that view after the way they handled business against North Carolina and the remarkable manner in which they won against Memphis.
So where does this team sit right now? Statistically speaking this is a group that is similar to Bill Self's 2008-2009 team. The ball was handed to Sherron Collins in the backcourt and Cole Aldrich manned the middle. Kansas had a host of talented freshman but it was a full blown rebuilding year. The Jayhawk offense was good but not at the same level that they had been in the past and Kansas, as always, relied on their defense.
That team grew throughout the year, won the Big 12, and nearly made a run to the Elite Eight before falling to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Kansas isn't a program or a fanbase to celebrate Sweet 16 appearances, but for whatever reason that felt like a successful year. Losing so many pieces from a National Title team and reloading without relinquishing the Big 12 was a big part of that.
This year's team stepped in with a lot more experience, but in a way they were replacing just as much. Parity in college basketball continues to thrive and an early loss to Michigan State really seemed to springboard this team into a place where they looked as good as anyone in the country at times. In 2008-2009 a loss to Michigan State provided one final wake up call before Big 12 play where the Jayhawks would start 8-0.
In a lot of ways these teams have some similarities. Both struggle offensively at times, both have one player who has the capability of taking over the game, and both have a big man in the middle that changes the game defensively.
Similarities aside this year's team probably has one major difference and that is expectations. It's easy to say that things are so balanced and anything can happen so a Sweet 16 run would be great. There is some truth to that and no one would think any less of this teams regular season if that happens. At the same time this is a group with four seniors and they have shown a ceiling much higher and a ceiling that is on par with some of Bill Self's better teams.
This team has a chance to define their legacy in March. They've taken care of one big step along the way by winning the Big 12. Now they have two opportunities left in front of them. It starts this week in Kansas City and most likely continues in the same arena next weekend with the tip of the NCAA tournament. The end goal is Atlanta and this is a team that has said all the right things in the media and seems as focused as ever. But as always it takes a few good breaks, the right match-ups and plenty of hard work.
Sometimes the expectations at Kansas dwarf the accomplishments, but this was another fun and very successful Kansas team to watch. This was a great group of seniors and they have carried the torch just as they were expected to do. Hats off to them and this team, now hopefully we get four more weekends to enjoy the ride.