Bill Self's mantel will still be jam-packed with Big 12 title trophies by the end of this year.
The No. 3 Jayhawks continued their annual stronghold of the conference with a 59-55 road win over No. 11 Kansas State on Tuesday night, and Self and his team headed back to Lawrence with what has become an odd reoccurring feeling: relief.
"That game wasn't the most artistic," Self said afterward.
No, the Jayhawks aren't exactly painting a pretty picture.
They're built to win with grit and defense. This was the third win in five Big 12 games by single digits. To stay undefeated thus far, KU has needed a banked three at the buzzer from Ben McLemore to force overtime and eventually knock off Iowa State, a comeback in the final minutes at winless Texas on Saturday and now this win in Manhattan that leaned more toward slop than slick.
To give you an idea of the usual stroll through the Big 12 for Kansas, consider that only 17 of KU's 72 conference wins (or 23.6 percent) during the regular season the previous five years have come by single digits.
Tuesday night also nearly marked another possibly troubling trend. The Jayhawks just barely avoided a streak of three straight games scoring less than a point per possession, which would have been a first in the Self era, by scoring exactly one point per possession against the Cats.
Self's offense is definitely not an efficient machine as it has been in the past—or even as it was in December when KU averaged 85.8 points and won five games by an average margin of 26.6. If there's an issue, it's that this team lacks a dominant post scorer like Thomas Robinson or the Morris twins.
When those teams got in a bind, they could simply toss the ball to a big man and expect a bucket. Against K-State, the Jayhawks continually missed shots in close.
It's not as if they are incapable from the block. When they needed a bucket late, they still went inside to Jeff Withey and Withey threw in a jump hook for two of his 11 points.
Withey is not dominant on that end however, and neither are the Jayhawks.
But it might not matter.
Just as the Jayhawks won ugly throughout March on their way to the championship game last season, they could do it again this year. And once again it will be because of the reach of Withey, who set an NCAA Tournament record for blocked shots last March.
Kansas State came into the game as the Big 12's best shooting team during conference play. The Wildcats had made 40.5 percent of their threes and better than 50 percent of their twos in winning their first four conference games.
Kansas is the best two-point field goal percentage defense in the country because of Withey. Understandably, the Wildcats tried to stay away from the 7-footer. They did so with some success, as Withey did not record a block for the first time since Feb. 25 of last season.
Again, it didn't matter.
Self still had his team well prepared to guard Bruce Weber's motion offense, and K-State was 9-of-30 shooting from distance and 11-for-27 inside the arc. Rodney McGruder, who averaged 21.5 in his first four conference games, was held to two points in the first half and finished with 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting in 38 minutes.
The Jayhawks never trailed in the second half and built as big as a 10-point lead midway through when McLemore buried back-to-back jumpers.
When K-State cut the lead to three in the final minute, backup point guard Naadir Tharpe, who had attempted only nine free throws all season, buried two at the line to lock up the win.
"I don't know if we were lucky, but we certainly made some plays when we had to," Self said.
And that is why this team is once again on its way to their ninth Big 12 title in a row. They seem to always finish.
Weber's Wildcats had the look of a challenger—they proved as much by keeping it close—but really, they're just another wannabe party crasher.
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