LAWRENCE (AP) — Brandon Rush returned to Kansas to have his jersey retired this week, and it so happened that the ceremony coincided with the No. 3 Jayhawks clinching a share of their 13th straight Big 12 title.
Afterward, the nine-year NBA veteran gave this year’s Kansas team a few parting words.
“He talked to us,” freshman Josh Jackson said, “about how the hard part is just beginning.”
That’s because conference championships have become the minimum requirement at Kansas, where an NCAA-leading 60 banners have been hung in Allen Fieldhouse. Rush was part of three in the midst of their current run, the only three seasons he played before turning pro.
But when his career highlights streamed across the video boards hanging over the floor at halftime Wednesday night, the biggest cheers were not for games against rivals Missouri or Kansas State. They were for images of Rush knocking down baskets against Memphis on an April night in San Antonio in 2008.
That was the night Rush helped deliver a national championship, the Jayhawks’ third since 1952 — and, so far, their last.
You see if Big 12 titles are the minimum, national titles are the maximum — the pinnacle for one of the winningest programs in college basketball. And the Jayhawks have only managed one, with one additional trip to the Final Four, during their record-tying streak of league championships.
Five times during it, they have failed to escape the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Jayhawks coach Bill Self is quick to acknowledge that greatness is forged in March, when the win-or-go-home pressure ramps up. He would gladly trade an end to their conference title streak for his second national championship, because those are the teams that ultimately get remembered.
Self even points out that UCLA, which likewise won 13 conference titles in the 1960s and ‘70s, has an edge on the Jayhawks because of the national title banners that now hang in Pauley Pavilion.
“We won 13 in a row, they won 13 in a row,” Self said after Wednesday night’s win over the Horned Frogs, “but they won 10 national championships and we’ve won one. I think we have a ways to go to catch that, so I don’t think it is right to be put in the same breath as that.”
Then again, Self isn’t going to discount conference championships. He recalled winning back-to-back Big Ten titles at Illinois, and how thousands of Illini fans had turned out at the airport in Champaign to greet the team upon its return each time.
“Here, we got a hat and a T-shirt,” he said, jokingly.
The Jayhawks (25-3, 13-2) have a chance to win the Big 12 title outright with a victory Saturday at Texas. But one of the benefits to wrapping things up so early in the conference race, with three games to go, is that they can enjoy a release of pressure before the Big 12 Tournament begins. Once that starts, it won’t let up until the season is over.
“I think right now what we have to do is stay fresh, minds and bodies, work on some things we aren’t doing as well as we should, and play with a freer mind,” Self said. “Whether you see it or not, these guys operate under pressure. They get everyone’s best shot. TCU was great. They get most everybody’s best shot. They don’t want to be the team that doesn’t (win the conference), ever since year three or four.
“I think in the next two weeks, we can focus on trying to just play our best basketball we’ve played all year, because the pressure is off a little bit.”
Self isn’t planning to rest anybody, though, because there are still goals to achieve. The Jayhawks are positioned to receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and with a regional final played just down the road in Kansas City, they could earn themselves a relatively easy path to the Final Four.
There are also individual honors: Frank Mason III is a leading candidate for national player of the year, Jackson could be the freshman of the year, and others are All-Big 12 and All-America candidates.
So while winning the Big 12 title is nice, as Rush said, the hard part is just beginning.
“We just have to stay focused and know we don’t have any pressure,” Jackson said. “We don’t have anything to prove to anybody. Just go out there and play our game and we’ll be fine.”