For this Kansas team, it’s what comes next, not the end of the streak, that matters most now
Say what you will about the end of KU’s 14-year Big 12 title streak, how the Kansas players and fans should react to it and what it means for the Big 12, these Jayhawks and the Kansas basketball program as a whole.
All of that, and much, much more, matters a great deal to those observing this thing from afar, even the former Kansas players who put their own work into building the NCAA record that is not likely to be broken any time soon, if ever.
But to the players who are living it, the 11 guys who suited up for Tuesday night’s 81-68 loss at Oklahoma that officially ended KU’s incredible run — and a couple others in street clothes who were there with them — the immediate response to the end of the streak has nothing to do with history, a legacy or how this team or that incredible run will be remembered.
That’s for the sports talk hosts, columnists, Twitter warriors and water cooler conversations.
What these guys are focused on is the same thing they’ve been focused on all season, a goal that has been difficult to grasp but one they’re not done grinding toward.
Whether you want them to take it harder, feel worse or reflect more profoundly on the end of the streak, the only thing that really matters to this current crop of Jayhawks is simple — getting better.
After Tuesday’s loss, freshman guard Ochai Agbaji was asked if he felt like the 2018-19 team let down all of those Jayhawks who came before them who built the streak to 14 in a row and had no plans of ever seeing it end.
Straight faced and without a moment’s hesitation, Agbaji answered, “Not really. We’re not really trying to really focus on that. I think we’re focusing on still getting better with this final stretch. I think we can actually still do something special and surprise a lot of people.”
Doing something special — which, by Kansas standards means Final Four or better — certainly would qualify as a surprise at this point.
But give Agbaji and his teammates credit for refusing to blink in the face of a tough situation.
Fair or not and tough circumstances notwithstanding, this team, these names and the dozen or so faces you’ve grumbled about all season will be the ones forever associated with the end of the streak. In time, that will mean less and sting softer. But at this time, it’s a lot to handle. Especially when you consider that four key contributors on this team are freshmen going through it all for the first time in their lives.
While we’re in the mood of handing out credit, let me throw a little more Agbaji’s way.
After Tuesday’s game, it was 18-point scorers Dedric Lawson and David McCormack who accompanied KU coach Bill Self to the media room to talk about this particular loss and what it felt like to have the streak come to an end.
But afterwards, about 10 minutes after Self was finished with his portion of the postgame Q&A session, a KU official hollered toward Agbaji on his way up the ramp and out to the team bus, requesting that he come back for a few more minutes of interviews.
A lesser person would have conveniently found it too difficult to hear above all the noise and commotion and would have quickly slipped out the back door instead of facing the music. But not Agbaji. He turned around, walked back down the ramp and found a way to stand with his head held high and his signature smile on his face as he answered questions similar to the ones that his teammates and coach were asked moments earlier.
“It’s kind of hard,” admitted the 18-year-old Agbaji, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and, therefore, grew up with the streak as a part of his childhood. “But thinking about it from a bigger picture, all the guys and all the players that have played, all the games and conference championships they won and all that, (we’re) obviously applauding them and I think it’s kind of cool looking back at that.”
Looking back on it is all anybody can do when it comes to the streak from this point forward. And, yeah, Twitter and talk radio and message boards and fan blogs were overloaded with that kind of thing late Tuesday night and throughout the day Wednesday.
And it’ll be that way — some days, weeks, months and years more than others — for a long, long time.
But inside the Kansas locker room, on the practice courts at Allen Fieldhouse and in the film room next to the players lounge in KU’s luxurious locker room, the Jayhawks figure to have more important things on their mind.
None of them wanted the streak to end. The all wanted to become a part of it. And there’s no doubt that they’re disappointed that they’re not. But following the lead of their head coach, they’re also choosing to move on.
“He just talked about getting better and getting ready for Baylor (1 p.m. Saturady at Allen Fieldhouse) and finishing the season strong and having some confidence going over and playing in Kansas City (in the Big 12 tournament),” junior forward Dedric Lawson said of the postgame message from Self on Tuesday night. “Going forward, (we just want to) take it a game at a time. We’re playing Baylor and go from there to Kansas City. We have to carry it over from practice to wherever we go play.”
Tapping into his years of wisdom and utilizing the approach that led to the streak’s creation in the first place, not to mention a spot in the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., Self already was thinking about what comes next on Tuesday night.
Yeah, Baylor’s the next game on the schedule and the Big 12 tournament is up after that. But what comes next for this group goes far beyond a time slot and scheduled opponent.
It’s about a mindset, an approach and an understanding that just because the streak is dead does not mean all is lost.
“Every team that played tonight, 50 percent of them lost,” Self said after Tuesday’s defeat. “And I don’t think they’re going to throw in the towel because they lost on a Tuesday night in early March. Now, you’re going to throw it in if you lose on a Friday night or a Thursday night in later March. But we’re not at that point yet.”
And the goal for the Jayhawks from here on out, wherever they go, whoever they face and whatever they’re seeded, is to do everything in their power to avoid reaching that point.
“Kansas was a 6 seed and won a national championship (in 1988),” Self continued. “Of course, they had one guy (Danny Manning) that was a little bit better than everybody else’s. But the whole thing is anything can still happen.”
He continued: “Being realistic, you don’t have the margin for error. Like, in the past, if you’re not playing well, you still have maybe enough talent to overcome some things. But, hey, scouting report or health, a whistle, whatever is more magnified now when you’re not more talented than the other teams. You’re playing against a level playing field. If you just watched OU and us play tonight, you’d say, ‘God dang, their players are every bit what our guys are. Maybe more.’ And that’s the way it’s going to be the rest of the way. Because we’re not going to play any games where we’re big favorites and we’re not going to play any games where we’re big (underdogs). It’s just going to be whether or not we can just get it done that night.
“We can still do special things. But what’s special for some teams is different than what’s special for other teams.”
For Kansas, an unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive conference titles delivered by some of the biggest and best names to ever put on a Kansas uniform, is special.
But so, too, is making a run in the NCAA Tournament, expected or unexpected.
There are enough reasons to think that that kind of finish is not in the cards for this team. But there’s also enough time left in the season for them to prove otherwise.
The time to talk about the streak has passed. It’s time to talk about what’s next, whatever that may be.