In early March of 2007 Kansas won both the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles in essentially a single week. It's always been my feeling that those two victories were the true beginning of Bill Self's stranglehold on the Big 12.
Back in 2007 the Big 12 truly was one of the best leagues in the country. Nobody knows what former Bill Self assistant Billy Gillespie might have turned Texas A&M's basketball program into had he stayed instead of bolting for the big bucks and bright lights of Kentucky basketball. In hindsight I'm pretty sure nobody knows now that move was more ill-advised than Billy Gillespie himself. A rising coaching star by 2007, Gillespie had A&M's program humming like it never had before, returning them to the NCAA tournament after a 20 year absence in 2006. Gillespie then took the Aggies to consecutive tourney appearances for the first time in the program's history in 2007, by that time with a Final Four caliber squad led by Acie Law IV.
Across the state at A&M's rival, Texas, Rick Barnes had already built a consistent NCAA tournament program of his own at another predominantly football school, even taking the Longhorns to a Final Four in 2003. By 2007 it appeared that Barnes was on the top of his game and only getting stronger as he continued to load his teams with talent like LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, the back-to-back #2 picks in the 2006 and 2007 NBA drafts.
We have yet to see another season with more widespread future NBA talent at the top of the Big 12 at one time. Whoever emerged as champion of the league in 2007 had to earn every single diamond in that championship ring. It just so happened it was Kansas. But midway through the conference season that was very much in doubt.
On February 3, 2007 Texas A&M traveled to Allen Fieldhouse for an ESPN Gameday matchup between Top Ten teams. With KU clinging to a 66-64 lead with less than 30 seconds left, Acie Law buried a three from the corner with Brandon Rush's hand basically half way up Law's nose. The shot put the Aggies up for good and the win moved Texas A&M into first place in the Big 12.
But this would prove to be no two-dog fight, because the talk of the conference in 2007 was all about a freshman playing in Austin. Texas' roster had essentially reset from its loaded 2006 squad and no one was quite sure what to expect of the freshman dominated 2007 squad until we saw Kevin Durant play. That kid was/is almost superhuman. He averaged an absolutely sick 25.8 points and 11 boards per game in his lone season at Texas. Two days after beating Kansas, Texas A&M gave Texas its third conference loss. Following that game, though, Texas ripped off a five-game win streak to put themselves right back in the mix for the 2007 league title. Texas and Texas A&M played each other on February 28, 2007 in what would turn out to be a marathon double overtime slugfest ultimately won by Texas 98-96 after Acie Law and Kevin Durant threw haymakers all night long with 33 and 30 points, respectively.
The A&M loss pushed the Jayhawks into sole possession of first place in the conference. However, with all the buzz surrounding the Longhorns and Aggies instant classic down in Austin, you began to hear growing grumblings of sports pundits concerning how fortunate Kansas was to be playing the old Big 12 North. Some went so far as to suggest that Kansas, despite sitting at the top of the league standings, might actually be the third best team in the league.
Going into the final weekend of play in 2007 Kansas held a 13-2 conference record, and Texas A&M and Texas were both 12-3. Kansas was already assured a share of the league title, but if Texas, with its wunderkind Kevin Durant, went into Allen Fieldhouse and won and then Texas A&M beat Mizzou, Kansas would have slipped to the #3 seed in that year's Big 12 Tournament down in Oklahoma City.
Kansas fans had watched Durant make a mockery of the NBA's one and done rule all season, and March 3rd was finally their chance to see the kid in person. He didn't disappoint. Completely unbowed by the Allen Fieldhouse atmosphere, Durant went nuts, draining threes and throwing down dunks for 25 points in the first half alone. The rest of his team followed his lead, seemingly unable to miss. D.J. Augustine and A.J. Abrams threw in 19 and 18 points of their own as Texas amassed a 16 point lead of 51-35 just before halftime.
Bill Self only has 5 conference losses in ten seasons at Kansas because his ‘Hawks rarely get punked in its own gym the way Texas and Durant was taking it to them that day. Self knew that offensively his team was capable of coming back, but something had to be done to neutralize Durant. To start the second half Bill put Brandon Rush on the job. As great as an offensive player Rush was during his time at Kansas (leading the team in scoring all 3 seasons) people forget just how great of a defender he was with his long arms, speed, and quick coordination. From 2006 - 2008 whenever Bill needed a stopper he went to Brandon. Rush did his job harrying Durant just enough to allow Kansas to go on a momentum swinging 24-7 run to start the second half and take the lead at 59-58.
Kansas expanded its lead to 71-65 and then Durant, pressing so hard to get free of Brandon Rush, unfortunately rolled his ankle and had to leave the game with 11 minutes left. Durant returned around the 7 minute mark as Kansas was pulling away and holding a 9 point lead at 81-72, but he wasn't the same. He'd finish the game with 32 points, but only 7 came after intermission. Still, with the amount of attention Durant demanded from Kansas' defenders, Texas shooters took advantage and closed the gap late. Kansas held an 89-86 lead with just 5 seconds left when D. J. Augustine found himself wide open for a game tying 3 point attempt. That's when Julian Wright came out of nowhere and blocked the shot. The Jayhawks picked up the deflection and then converted one of two free throws to put the game out of reach.
The 90-86 victory rendered Texas A&M's victory over Missouri later in the afternoon irrelevant, giving the Jayhawks the Big 12 regular season title outright.
Even with the victory at the Fieldhouse though, all the talk going into the Big 12 Tournament was of how Kansas benefited from Durant's injury and that Texas A&M was still the best team in the league after they beat down Mizzou by 16 points.
Once the tournament started Kansas proceeded to roll into the championship game while A&M was bounced by one point in the quarterfinals by Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, third seeded Texas took care of business to set up a rematch with Kansas. Durant's ankle appeared to be fine as the eventual Big 12 tournament MVP had poured 29 points on Baylor and 26 on Oklahoma State en route to the title game.
If Durant looked good to start the game in Lawrence, he looked absolutely unreal to start the game in Oklahoma City. After missing his first shot attempt Durant went on to make 8 shots in a row to push Texas out to a staggering 19-2 lead. He just kept on going from there as Texas swelled their lead to 32-10. Bill Self would say after the game that Kevin Durant, "is the best player I have ever seen."
But Bill and his team didn't panic, burning timeout after timeout to calm everyone down. Kansas freshman Sherron Collins was huge in turning the tide of this game. Coming off the bench he threw in 20 points, second in the game only to Durant's 37.
Just as they had in Lawrence eight days before, Kansas used a 24-7 run to swing momentum fully into their favor. By the end of the first half the game was a much tighter 39-34. Texas seemed shell-shocked, experiencing a devastating déjà vu, but the game played out its second act in a thrilling, back and forth, lead trading fashion. Kansas took their first lead of the game at 61-60 following a pair of Mario Chalmers free throws with a little less than 8 minutes left. The ‘Hawks looked to be taking control when they held their largest lead of the day at 71-66 with 3 minutes to go. Then Texas and Durant would erupt to take a 73-71 lead in less than a minute. Even though Kansas would again take momentary lead back, the 'Hawks found themselves down 78-76 with 20 seconds left and Texas at the free throw line for a chance to make it a two possession game.
Except Texas guard Craig Winder missed the front end of a pair of free throws to leave Kansas with a chance at 79-76. That's when this happened...
In almost the same exact way Kansas would survive to ultimately win a National Championship the very next spring, in that 2007 Big 12 Title game you had Sherron Collins dribble the ball up the court, pass it off to Mario Chalmers at the top the 3 point arc and... the kid sinks an absolute dream shot!
Chalmers sent the Big 12 Title game into overtime for the first and only time in its history. It was in overtime that Kansas would hold on to win 88-84, completing the largest comeback in Kansas basketball history. The win would would earn the Jayhawks a #1 seed in the 2007 NCAA Tournament (the first of five #1 seeds in a span of seven years for KU), and erase any and all doubt about who was the true champion of the 2007 Big 12 season.