Everyone doubted the Kansas Jayhawks coming into the 2011-12 season. Even though Kansas won the last seven Big 12 regular season championships, the Jayhawks history atop the conference throne was thrown into question.
It can be argued that Kansas took the biggest blow of any college basketball program in the 2010-11 offseason, losing six out of its eight top scorers from the previous season. Fox News, in its Big 12 Preview, stated that fact simply, “No team lost more in the Big 12 [offseason] than the Jayhawks.”
Yet, Jayhawk fans saw hope in the talent left on the team. For one, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, now a junior and senior respectively, finally grew into their own and were noticeably ready to lead the team.
On top of that, Kansas thought it could retain its old ways with highly touted and heavily-recruited guard Ben McLemore and the capable Jamari Traylor.
McLemore was seen as Kansas’ biggest hope and most talented player in last year’s recruiting class. He is a fantastic shooter that could have provided depth for the Jayhawks with his scoring on the wing. Traylor, on the other hand, was seen as a backup to the big boys, who would be critical in providing starter's relief.
That all looked great until news broke back in October that both of these freshmen were ineligible to play, and with the departure of their playing time went the chances of Kansas’ eighth Big 12 regular season title in a row and shot at a national championship.
Or so the college basketball world and sports analysts thought.
The season started with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor filling the scorer’s spot nicely. Robinson posted a double-double in eight of his first 10 games, and Taylor shot for 10 plus points in nine of his first 10.
However, the record did not show a dominant Kansas team.
With a stroke of bad luck, the Jayhawks were faced with three tests before the middle of December. The second game of the season, Kansas faced a burgeoning Kentucky squad that, even then, found a way to stick it to the Jayhawks in the second half. Three games later, No. 14 ranked Kansas faced No. 6 Duke, where the Blue Devils would retain their seat atop of the teams in Maui.
The last game on that incredibly difficult non-conference schedule was against second ranked Ohio State. Without star Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes were the only ranked team to drop a game to Kansas during this span.
Riding the high of its first top 10 win of the season, Kansas was shocked the next game when it lost to Davidson.
From then on, the Jayhawks would go on to win every remaining non-conference game and proceed to stun the Big 12, losing only two games during the conference regular season. By that time, all attention was focused on the war between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Missouri Tigers.
The Tigers were a surprise in the Big 12 this season with first-year head coach Frank Haith leading Missouri to a 14-0 start and a 21-2 record before the Jayhawks came to town, naturally setting up a fantastic showdown.
The two teams would split the two regular season games, with Kansas losing a close one to the comeback-minded Tigers and the opposite happening during the second matchup.
As conference play heated up, so did one unlikely player on Kansas’ team—Jeff Withey.
Withey flew under the radar during the offseason and was seen as a raw player. That is until he became a machine on the defensive end of the court and held block parties that could compete with Anthony Davis.
By the first meeting with Missouri, Withey had already posted 33 blocks in the first nine conference games. Combining forces with Taylor and Robinson, this trio became the deadliest in Big 12 basketball and, arguably, the nation.
Even after the first loss to Missouri, Kansas continued to steamroll its way through conference play, not losing another conference game, and in the end, sealing its eighth straight conference regular season title.
Next up was the Big 12 tournament, where the Jayhawks were heavily favored as the top seed. Those dreams, however, were dashed in what was a sign of what the season could have been with a loss to Baylor. Kansas simply did not play well in the semi-finals of the Big 12 tournament and showed those weaknesses that preseason pundits highlighted.
In the end, though, Kansas entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed and with one powerful weapon—head coach Bill Self.
A man who holds the attitude that “There’s not many things less important then the score at halftime,” and “you figure out how to win a game when you don’t play real well,” is an invaluable asset.
The Jayhawks were never teetering on the brink of disaster towards the end of the season, and the loss to Baylor did not cement failure, but some coaches might have had a hard time pulling their unit out of such a slump.
Not Self, who would eventually go on to win the coveted Naismith College Coach of the Year award and be the spark that led his team into the national championship game.
When his team was behind to Purdue in the round of 32, Self rallied his squad at the half and told them to “Trust each other.” Two games later, Self made it clear that even though “most Kansas fans would be happy… if we got to the second weekend [of the tournament],” the team should not be.
Kansas might have played ugly in the tournament but fought its way all the way to the national championship game because of Self's leadership.
From there, the rest is old news. The Kentucky Wildcats would eventually walk away with the hardware, but this season was nothing close to the disappointment that was predicted.
Take a look at the trophy case from the 2011-12 season and one might assume that the Jayhawks were in a rebuilding year. Only one piece of metal detailing the Big 12 regular season champions would sit on the shelf—no Big 12 tournament champions, national champions or player of the year awards.
In addition, the Jayhawks cannot be said to have exceeded expectations. In the end, what this team did was play Kansas basketball and represent the storied history of its program with pride.
Legendary head coach Bob Knight once said, “I used to think I wanted to be a political cartoonist; you only need one idea a day. Then I thought I’d be a sportswriter; you don’t need any ideas.”
Maybe he was on to something, because sports writers should never doubt what the Kansas Jayhawks can do each and every season.