We've heard it all season from college basketball analysts on ESPN, CBS and any other network that has spent time talking about this season's Big 12: with the strength of the league this year, this could be the year that Kansas' streak of league dominance finally comes to an end. At times, it has even appeared that these analysts are rooting for KU's streak to come to an end, simply because it would finally give them a new story to report out of the Big 12 for the first time in 10 years. Through the non-conference slate, it was reported far and wide that this was the year that finally, FINALLY Kansas's streak looked to be truly in peril.
Watching Kansas in the early part of the season, it was hard for me to get a grip on what exactly the make-up of this KU team was. A 32 point loss to Kentucky was alarming to many KU fans because such a loss has never been taken by a Bill Self-coached team. Yes, Kentucky was the preseason number 1 ranked team, but Kansas was in the top 5 preseason and it seemed that for the first time in a long time Kansas basketball was ill-equipped to handle any team that had tall, strong post players. No matter how many seemingly legitimate excuses and possible reasons for this terrible performance I could think up, I couldn't shake an awful feeling in my stomach that this year may in fact be the first year of a disappointing result experienced by Kansas fans in a long while. Yes, I knew it was ridiculous the size advantage Kentucky possessed, and yes I knew Kentucky had the benefit of a lot more practice time due to their summer trip, but none of these excuses provided an answer for a 32 point loss to Kentucky.
Despite this, Kansas went more than a month without losing another game. I was happy to win many close games, but seeds of doubt remained in my mind as Kansas definitely did not look stellar and failed to blow out a single opponent in this stretch. It was then I realized that this particular KU team may simply just not afford me the luxury so many KU teams had before of playing a large number of stress-free games for me as a fan where I could almost bank on a blowout. Kansas had to be focused to play well enough to win each game it seemed- it could not much afford off-games from a star or two like it always seemed Kansas teams in the past could.
I saw in person what I had been afraid of when I walked into the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to watch Kansas play Temple on December 22. The only Kansas player to seemingly get off the bus for that last pre-holiday game was Frank Mason III. Kansas alums and fans from the East Coast that had made the trip to Philadelphia like me and my father viewed with detached disbelief as a mediocre Temple team had their way with us. Even the Temple fans couldn't believe what they were seeing as I'm sure none of them in their wildest dreams could have foreseen a blowout against Kansas.
It was then that the train full of national analysts - all pontificating that this was the season for KU's Big 12 dominance to end - really began to pick up steam. It was hard to argue with them, and that was particularly infuriating to me. It seemed foolish to believe that a team that could get blown out by Temple and not blow out any teams, even with such a strong schedule as Kansas played, could avoid getting upended by one of many contenders from a Big 12 that collectively posted a hugely impressive non-conference slate. Iowa State, Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia all seemed to be playing about as well as Kansas was entering conference play. How on earth could we hope to go through the Big 12 slate that was as tough as it has ever been and win the Big 12 when we seemed to have about as flawed a KU team in a long while?
Looking back at that time now when a lot of KU fans were in a panic about continuing KU's Big 12 streak and a ton of national analysts were openly picking against KU to win the league-it seems shocking to me that everyone, including me I must admit, forgot the one unquestioned advantage that would lift Kansas to an 11th straight Big 12 title. That advantage of course is Allen Fieldhouse-unquestionably the best home court advantage in college basketball if not all of sport. When statistical sites such as KenPom picked teams not named "Kansas" to have the statistical edge based on the season so far for winning the Big 12, I saw many people I follow on twitter worryingly sharing this information but I don't recall anyone pointing out what seems obvious to me now that we are in the middle of Big 12 play and up a game in the standings.
That obvious point is that no statistical argument can factor in the huge advantage that playing your home games at Allen Fieldhouse provides. Kansas just doesn't lose there. Okay, well that's not true-they have lost at the Phog 9 times through Coach Self's 12 seasons so far, but still. They average less than 1 loss a year. Barring some unforeseen collapse at home the likes of which KU fans just have never seen from a Bill Self coached team, we can count on at MOST 1 home loss the rest of this season, and most likely another run of the mill 9-0 home conference slate.
Despite whatever you hear about "Hilton Magic", there is no comparison between Iowa State's run at home over the last few years and Kansas' unparalleled dominance at Allen Fieldhouse in the Bill Self era. It is so difficult to knock off Kansas in the Big 12 when year after year you can pencil in a 9-0 home conference record, (or at worst 8-1) for the Jayhawks. Couple that with the already impressive road wins of Baylor and Texas for KU this year, and it seems like just another typical year KU fans have come to expect from Coach Self. Wow, how spoiled are we?
Of course this Groundhog day, Iowa State will come into Allen Fieldhouse hoping to prove themselves as the exception to the rule in the narrative of KU's home dominance. Don't get me wrong, I realize this Iowa State team is great and has all the tools to come in and knock us off and drag us into a three-way tie with them and West Virginia in the Big 12. The difference in winning and losing this game is the difference between opening up a 2 game lead on the team many think is our biggest threat in the league, and being tied with them. A 2 game lead after finishing our regular season matchups with Iowa State, while not insurmountable, seems like about as comfortable a lead as one could have possibly hoped for in the Big 12 this season.
And of course there is still a West Virginia team in the league that impressively only has 2 losses thus far that could perhaps pose a threat to KU as well.- though it must be observed that West Virginia has already finished its stretch of 4 total games against TCU and Texas Tech, undoubtedly the weakest two links in the Big 12 chain. The argument can be made that West Virginia's remaining schedule may be the most difficult of all the teams in college basketball. Because of this, I believe Iowa State is still KU's biggest threat to the Big 12 crown.
So, what will this Groundhog Day have in store for Iowa State and the rest of the Big 12? Will they wake up Tuesday morning as Bill Murray in the hellish Groundhog Day-esque loop that is Kansas being the favorite who is poised to take the Big 12 crown yet again? Or will they wake up to a new day with a new identity as the bold challenger to Kansas that somehow pulled off the almost unthinkable feat of beating Kansas twice in Big 12 play? If KU's history at the Phog under Coach Self is an indicator, it appears that Iowa State and the rest of the Big 12 will most likely be waking up Tuesday to "I Got You, Babe" by Sonny and Cher.