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That One Time Bill Self Didn't Win the Big 12

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A long time ago, in a world where Michael Jackson still lived and George Lucas had yet to release his third terrible Star Wars prequel, first year Kansas coach Bill Self and his Jayhawks finished third in the Big 12 Conference standings.

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The Jayhawks need just one win in three games to clinch at least a share of their 12th straight conference title. It could be this Saturday in front of a home crowd. If they win two of their last three then the Jayhawks will win the trophy outright, sharing about as well as the Kansas state government shares with public school children.

If, and more than likely when, this happens the city-wide class of Lawrence seventh graders will find it hard to believe there was ever a time when Kansas didn't cut down the conference nets. It has yet to happen in their lifetime. But yes, children, it's true. There was this one time, literally one time, that a Bill Self coached Kansas squad didn't win the Big 12. To tell their story we must look back, all the way to the year 2004.

It was a strange and alien time when I-Phones were three years from existence and the savage, cave tool equivalent that was the Motorola Razr was the phone of choice used primarily to actually - GASP - call people. Facebook was mere weeks old, many years away from when your parents and grandparents got on there to ruin the entire experience. George W. Bush was still in his first term as U.S. President, and Donald Trump, with his orange skin and cotton candy-esque flaxen hair, was just a loud mouthed and arrogant television personality in the first season of his show "The Apprentice."

In fact, the story of the last non Big 12 winning Jayhawks men's basketball team begins even further in the past, on the night of April 7, 2003. CBS reporter Bonnie Bernstein caught up with then Kansas coach Roy Williams outside of the KU locker room just minutes after his Jayhawks lost a heart breaker to Syracuse in the NCAA Title game. When pressed on whether he'd be leaving Kansas for the North Carolina coaching job Williams said, "I could give a sh*t about North Carolina right now."

Exactly one week later Williams gave two apparent sh*ts about Carolina, because he was in Chapel Hill saying, "I was a Tar Heel born, and when I die I'll be a Tar Heel dead, but in between I was a Jayhawk."

Exit one hall of fame coach from Lawrence. Enter one who had what it takes to replace him. However, in the spring of 2003 many Kansas fans still sulking over being dumped by Williams looked on Bill Self with doubt.  Williams' last two years at Kansas were, arguably, the best of his entire 15 at the school. Back to back Final Fours on the backs of NBA talent running one of the nation's most potent offenses.

In '04 Self faced a huge task. He was taking the keys to one of the five college basketball dynasties, playing at its highest rate of consistent success since the 1950s, when the man responsible for the bulk of that success, Williams, was at his most popular.

His roster for the 2003-04 season was not bare of talent. Yes, the Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich era was done, but Self inherited a team returning three starters from the National Title game - Jeff Graves, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles. He would also have stud big man Wayne Simien, as well as solid bench man Mike Lee, and two top recruits that signed on to play for Williams before Self convinced them to stick around and play for him - David Padgett and J.R. Giddens.

Self's Jayhawks 1.0 started the season on November 21, 2003 ranked #6 in the nation. His starting lineup consisted of Graves and Simien up front, Langford and Giddens on the wings, Aaron Miles running point, with Lee and Padgett off the bench.

In the second game of the season, Tom Izzo brought his third ranked Michigan State Spartans to town and Self's 'Hawks throttled them, sparked by the three point bombing and rim rocking dunks of head-banded freshman Giddens.

The win over the Spartans vaulted the Jayhawks to #1 in the nation just 12 days into Self's first season as Jayhawks coach.

Things became a little more difficult though, starting with a loss to 21st ranked Stanford. Four games later Self and his Jayhawks lost, rather soundly, on the road to an unranked Nevada squad. By Christmas of '03 Kansas had fallen to #12 in the nation.

Even with the growing pains that came with a roster trying to adjust to Self's defensive and offensive system, one thing had become obvious in the early portion of the season. It was a system that suited Simien's talents just fine. Simien was barely used as a freshman, buried behind Drew Gooden and Collison. As a sophomore starter his season had been lost to injury. His junior season Self made him the focal point of his team and Simien didn't shy away from the challenge.

Simien's play, added to Langford's consistent scoring punch, Miles as an assist machine, and the emergence of Giddens as a star who would go on to be named Big 12 Freshman of the year, the Jayhawks appeared to be rounding into shape.

Then Self's 'Hawks lost at Allen Fieldhouse. Something the Jayhawks aren't supposed to do. Especially when their opponent wasn't from a power five conference, or even ranked.

It's been widely publicized  that Self has all of nine home losses at Kansas. People forget that three of those nine losses came against the likes of Oral Roberts in 2006, Nevada in 2005, and Richmond in '04. That Richmond loss in his first season was the first home loss for Kansas against an unranked opponent since 1999. The Richmond loss had premature Self haters all foamed up and pining for Williams.

By February of '04 Kansas' ranking dipped to #20 in the nation. The Big 12 Conference season started 2-1 following a loss to Iowa State up in Ames. Then two games later Kansas suffered back to back road losses to Oklahoma State and Nebraska by 20 points.

There was no shame in losing to Oklahoma State in '04. It was the best Cowboys team coach Eddie Sutton had put on the floor in a decade, eventually finishing the season at the Final Four. The Cowboys lost just two conference games in ‘04. In the old Big 12 format, Kansas only saw the south region schools once a season. With no second shot at the Cowboys at Allen, if the Jayhawks had any hope of keeping pace with the red hot Cowboys they couldn't afford the pounding they took from the Cornhuskers. That loss pretty much eliminated Self's Jayhawks from conference title contention. When Kansas again suffered a road beat down to 11th ranked Texas, it made it official.

Believe it or not, but Self's first Jayhawks team finished third in the conference standings.

Self's Jayhawks finished the season strong though, capping off their final three regular season wins by closing down Missouri's hallowed Hearnes Center with a thrilling victory. In the NCAA Tournament as a 4-seed, Self's Jayhawks made a run to the Elite Eight where -  after a J.R. Giddens three pointer -  they were an overtime period away from making a third straight Final Four.

Interestingly enough, had Kansas beaten Georgia Tech in that Elite Eight, they would have run into Oklahoma State in the Final Four.

That '04 Oklahoma State team was fantastic. It was the last truly dominant team not named Kansas to come out of the Big 12. They were the last Big 12 school not named Kansas to lose just two games or less during the conference season. During Self's now 12 year title run his Jayhawks have finished a conference season with two or less losses five times. Also, much like Kansas does year in and year out, the '04 Cowboys won all of their conference home games. During Self's title run all would be contenders have dropped crucial games at home. Consequently, that '04 Oklahoma State team was also the last Big 12 school not named Kansas to reach the Final Four.

You can't say Kansas, as long as Self is its coach, won't ever lose the Big 12 title again. The law of averages has to win out, right? Besides they did, once, a long time ago, when every kid on his current roster was in grade school.

Then again, until the conference actually sees it happen, there's 12 years worth of replacing starting lineups and reloading at Kansas to suggest it's possible that it won't happen until a bunch of current grade schoolers are playing for him in Lawrence another 12 years from now.