LAWRENCE (AP) — There is a floor-to-ceiling graphic pasted onto the wall outside the Kansas locker room, just beyond the tunnel leading to the hallowed floor of Allen Fieldhouse.
The court itself forms the background of it. But stretching across the top are images of 10 rings, each encrusted with enough diamonds to make Marilyn Monroe blush. Together, they represent the string of Big 12 perfection that the Jayhawks have compiled over the past decade.
Ten years. Ten championships.
Tonight, the No. 12 Jayhawks head to No. 21 Baylor to begin pursuit of their 11th straight. That would tie Gonzaga for the second-most in major college basketball, and move within two of matching the 13 straight Pac-10 championships that UCLA won in the 1960s and ‘70s.
But listening to Bill Self, this may be the most difficult yet. Given a chance on Monday afternoon, the Kansas coach rattled off four other teams that he thinks have shots at the Big 12 championship. Texas, he said, could win the national title. And given their unsteady non-conference performance, the Jayhawks — for once — may not be the favorites.
“There’s multiple teams,” he said, “but the great thing about it is, from my standpoint, if you’re good enough to be considered in winning our league, you’re probably good enough to be considered a contender to make a great run in the NCAA tournament, too.”
Not every year has been an outright title. Kansas (11-2) has shared the crown in five of those seasons. But not since Iowa State won the second of its back-to-back championships in 2001 has one of those glitzy title rings not been delivered to each member of the Jayhawks.
To put that into perspective, four teams that were in the Big 12 back then are in different conferences, and two that were in different conferences are now in the Big 12.
The dominance of Kansas during “The Streak” is startling: 25 first-team All-Big 12 picks, double that of any other program; five conference players of the year, most recently Thomas Robinson in 2012; and at least one first-team all-conference selection in each of those years.
There are signs that the Jayhawks’ supremacy will continue, too.
They are vastly improved from an early season shellacking at the hands of top-ranked Kentucky, beating Michigan State, Florida, Georgetown and Utah in succession. If not for a dud at Temple just before Christmas, that loss in the Champions Classic would be their only one.
Key freshmen are starting to contribute, including lengthy swingman Kelly Oubre and power forward Cliff Alexander. Frank Mason III is stamping himself a favorite to continue the Jayhawks’ run of first-team All-Big 12 players, and veterans such as Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden — if you can call a junior and sophomore veterans — are beginning to provide some leadership.
“I don’t ever go through and say, ‘We should win this one,’ or, ‘This is a coin-flip game,’” Self said. “But we weren’t ready to play with Kentucky and we’ve improved a lot since then.”
That doesn’t mean Self is content. Consistency has been an issue. Outside shooting has been spotty and interior offense hard to establish. Defensive intensity tends to wane.
All of those things can cause problems in the pressure-cooker of the Big 12.
“It’s real different,” Selden said, “the intensity, the fans, the away crowds, the home crowds, everything about it is different.”
Selden said that “some of us went in blind last year,” unaware of just how much the pressure builds in league play. A team full of freshmen wasn’t prepared for it, and it showed in some sloppy and embarrassing moments. But when the final week of the season rolled around, the Jayhawks had still risen to the top, just as they always seem to do.
Now, the Jayhawks hope another tough non-conference schedule will have them ready for the hardest conference — at least in terms of RPI — in major college basketball.
“We played some tough games earlier this season,” Mason said, almost defiantly, after a win over UNLV on Sunday. “It’s definitely a big boost for us going into conference play.”