'He's Going to Get 80 on Us': How KD Almost Toppled the Jayhawks' Big 12 Dynasty

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 22, 2017

Kansas forward Julian Wright (30) reaches to block Texas forward Kevin Durant (35) as he advances to the goal in the first half at the Big 12 Conference championship basketball game in Oklahoma City, Sunday, March 11, 2007.  (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Danny Johnston/Associated Press

For the past 13 years—after every practice and every game—the Kansas Jayhawks have broken their huddle with the same battle cry: "Big 12 Champs!"

It's among the subtle methods head coach Bill Self uses to keep his players engaged during the conference season and help them focus on winning a league title instead of thinking ahead to the NCAA tournament.

Thirteen straight times, the psychology has worked.

In what ESPN analyst Jay Bilas has pegged as "arguably the most remarkable achievement in the history of sport," the Jayhawks have won the Big 12 regular-season championship every year since 2005. Only the UCLA Bruins, who claimed 13 straight Pac-10 crowns from 1967 to 1979, can match KU's record of sustained conference supremacy. Considering the changes in the college basketball landscape, Kansas' reign could be even more impressive.

In his new book, Beyond the Streak, Bleacher Report senior writer Jason King—who once covered KU for the Kansas City Star, Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com—explains how it all happened. And why.

In this excerpt, King writes about a duel the Jayhawks had against Kevin Durant and the Texas Longhorns to close the 2006-07 regular season. Durant had established himself as one of the best players in the country when he made his one and only visit to Allen Fieldhouse.

The following is a condensed version of an oral history of that game, one that arguably was the best in Kansas' run. It appears in Beyond the Streak: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Unrivaled Big 12 Reign. The book hits stores in Kansas on Friday. It can also be purchased at www.kubook.net.

                        

The Kevin Durant Show

Kansas won seven straight games after the Texas A&M loss to move to 13-2 in conference play. That put the Jayhawks one game ahead of Texas and A&M in the Big 12 standings when the Longhorns came to Lawrence on March 3, 2007—the final day of the regular season. The 16,300 in attendance witnessed not only one of the most memorable games in Allen Fieldhouse history, but also one of the greatest players the sport of basketball has ever seen.

Kansas forward Darnell Jackson: The day we played Texas for the Big 12 title, I walked into Allen Fieldhouse two hours before tipoff and there was only one person in the entire gym: Kevin Durant. He was shooting all by himself, and he was absolutely soaked in sweat. I remember thinking, What is he doing?

              

Texas forward Kevin Durant: No matter where we were playing, my routine at Texas was to get to the gym early and get up extra shots before the game. I liked being the first one on the court, especially on the road. All of the fans would sit there and watch and boo. It happened every game, and it was fun. When we went to Kansas I knew the stands would be packed long before the game started.

It was an early-morning tipoff, and I was really excited to be in Lawrence that day, because everyone had told me the history and the tradition there was on another level. I mean, they've still got the wooden seats there and everything. I was very excited about playing there and seeing what it was all about.

The Jayhawks threw an array of defenders at Kevin Durant, but he still scored 25 points by the end of the first half at Allen Fieldhouse.
The Jayhawks threw an array of defenders at Kevin Durant, but he still scored 25 points by the end of the first half at Allen Fieldhouse.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/Associated Press

                

Texas guard A.J. Abrams: When we walked into Allen Fieldhouse, we expected everything to be made of gold, because people always talked about it like it was some holy place. We were like, "Urgh, this is it?" I guess it's more about the name and the history and not the actual facility.

The buildup and anticipation to that game was crazy. Kevin was going there for the first—and only—time. Back then, we only played Kansas once a year during the regular season, so it was our only chance with that group to go into Phog Allen and show what we've got. With KD on our team, we were like, "Man, we've got a chance."

We weren't nervous. The thought of losing never crossed our minds. We weren't afraid of the mystique. We just wanted to go in there and beat Kansas.

At the same time, I don't think any of us really understood the magnitude of the game. We didn't get caught up in the conference race or that kind of stuff. We started four freshmen, and I was the veteran as a sophomore. We were young and naive.

We had KD and D.J. Augustin, who I think is the best point guard to ever come through the University of Texas. We didn't have any sort of set offense that year. We just took it and ran with it. We freelanced. It played into our hands, because that's what we were good at.

             

Kansas guard Sherron Collins: The hype for that day had been building all week. Whenever we played those high-stakes games, there was a different feel in practice. Coach Self didn't joke around as much. The environment that week was intense. He brought up KD over and over and kept saying, "This guy can kill us. He can beat us. He can score on all of us."

Deep down, I think Shady [Darrell Arthur] wanted to guard Durant. And Shady probably could've guarded Durant, because he moved his feet really well.

             

Kansas forward Darrell Arthur: Coach Self was on me all week. He was like, "Durant is having this great season and doing this and that. Shady, what the hell are you doing? What the hell have you done?" He kept going on and on about Durant, and finally I was like, "Man, f--k Durant!"

I definitely wanted a shot at guarding him. I'd met him at Nike Camp our freshman year of high school. That was the first time he really jumped onto the scene. Before that he was like 6'2" or 6'3"—but then he shot up to 6'9". The improvement he made from that year to his freshman year of college was amazing.

                

Kansas guard Mario Chalmers: One of our ex-players, Billy Thomas, came to practice that week and played the role of KD on the scout team. He shot it nearly every time he touched it and didn't miss, no matter who we put on him. I was like, "Wow, if KD is gonna be like this, it's going to be a long night."

The day before the game, Coach Self was like, "Julian [Wright], we're putting you on Durant." B-Rush [Kansas guard Brandon Rush] and I looked at each other, like, Uh-Oh. JuJu was a great defender, but he gets lazy at times. He gets spacey. He's loosy-goosy. With KD, you can't do that. You've got to be locked in. That's one thing about Brandon. When Brandon is locked in, it's hard to score on him.

A sophomore at the time, Julian Wright drew the unenviable task of trying to guard Durant in the first half for the Jayhawks.
A sophomore at the time, Julian Wright drew the unenviable task of trying to guard Durant in the first half for the Jayhawks.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

             

Durant entered the Kansas game averaging 25.8 points and had posted back-to-back 30-point efforts in wins over Oklahoma and Texas A&M. He'd shot 54.8 percent (17-of-31) in those wins while connecting on nine-of-12 attempts from beyond the arc.

Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend: I think everyone respected him because of the numbers he was putting up, but it was tough to gauge just how good he truly was until you saw it in person.

           

Jackson: Durant was getting all of this hype on TV, but I kept thinking, "He's not going to do that against us." Then when the game started, I was like, "Oh, this guy is the real deal." He was unbelievable. He looked good on tape, sure. But in person it was at a different level.

          

Kansas guard Russell Robinson: In the back of my mind I was thinking, Sure, he's been playing really well. But he's still a freshman. The pressure of the Fieldhouse is going to get to him. The fans are going to be turnt up and we've got a strong team with lottery picks, as well. We felt like we'd be fine. How much can he really do? We thought it was more about keeping guys like Abrams and Augustin from getting hot.

   

Durant—the Big 12 leader in points, rebounds and blocks—opened the game by making eight of his first 10 shots. He hit the 20-point plateau with a three-pointer at the 7:55 mark, as Texas surged to a 51-35 lead with 2:55 to go in the first half.

Robinson: (Laughing) Boy, did he surprise us that first half. I remember going back to the bench for a timeout. I walked in last, just as the coaches were huddling up, and I heard Coach Self asking [assistant coach Joe] Dooley, "What are we going to do with this guy?" Dooley was speechless for a minute, and then he just shook his head and said, "I don't know. I really don't know."

                

Durant: I was just lost in the game. I was so happy to be there and to be playing in that arena at that time against that great team.

They had Chalmers, Shady, Julian Wright, Brandon Rush, Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun…they had a squad. They were all pros. I'd known Julian for a long time. He started off on me and then they switched to Brandon Rush and eventually to Darnell Jackson.

My first shot went in and, from there, my confidence level kept rising and rising and I was able to knock down some shots.

It was fun, man. It was fun to look over and see Coach Self shaking his head and to hear the crowd get quiet when we built that lead. We were up by 16 at one point. To suck the air out of that historic arena, even for a half … I'll take that.

                  

Townsend: Julian Wright started off on him. He's a good athlete, and we thought he could give Durant some trouble with his length. But he was just killing Julian. He had 25 in the first half. We switched Julian off of him and gave Brandon a chance. Brandon was our best perimeter defender, and we thought maybe Brandon playing underneath him would be good. That was eight minutes into the first half. I remember the next timeout Brandon came to the bench and said, "I can't guard that mo-fo. He's too big. He's too good."

            

Kansas assistant coach Tim Jankovich: We started Julian on him, and Durant starts shooting it from 25 feet. Then he moves back and tries to hit a shot from every logo on the court. He was making every shot.

I look up at the 8:00 mark of the first half, maybe just under eight minutes, and they've got everyone's scoring total up on the scoreboard. He had 20 points! I leaned over to Bill and whispered, "He's going to get 80 on us! He's going to score 80!" I'll never forget thinking, Oh my God, this guy is going to come into the Fieldhouse as a freshman and hang 80 on a team that has five pros on it.

              

Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley: Jank was always so positive.

    

Kansas head coach Bill Self: At one point, I turned to Danny Manning (who was director of student-athlete development at Kansas at the time), who'd had a decent game or two at Allen Fieldhouse during his career. I said, "Danny, you have any ideas?" And he said, "That's the baddest man to ever play on this court. He's a baaadddd man."

          

Director of Student-Athlete Development Danny Manning: You always appreciate guys that are able to do things you hardly ever see. You can't help but marvel at talent like that.

You'd like to think you could play better defense, but he was making some tough shots. He was catching the ball, squaring guys up, jabbing them off, rising up, shooting pull-up J's and scoring at all three different levels. He was out there balling, and we didn't have anything to stop him.

               

Rush: Right off the bat, he hit a shot over me and he goes, "Uh-oh, it's about to be a long night! You're too little!" He was talking trash and I couldn't say anything back. How could I? He damn near had 30 points—in the first half!

          

Texas head coach Rick Barnes: The first 20 minutes of that game was the best half of basketball Kevin Durant ever played collegiately. We were isolating him and giving him the ball, just daring them to double-team him. They tried to double-team him from every possible angle you could double-team him, and he always made the right read. He got wide-open shots. That first half…they had no answer. No matter what they did, he had an answer for anything.

            

Kansas guard Brady Morningstar: I remember one play when he got the ball at half court, drove down the middle of the lane and dunked it. That dunk dropped the jaws of everyone in the building. It was literally the loudest silence I've ever heard, if that makes sense. You could've heard a peanut crack. There was a loud "boom" when he dunked it, but it was such a clean dunk that there was no rattle. Just…boom!!!

Durant's first-half scoring explosion was the best 20 minutes of basketball he played at Texas, said Rick Barnes, then Texas' head coach.
Durant's first-half scoring explosion was the best 20 minutes of basketball he played at Texas, said Rick Barnes, then Texas' head coach.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

             

Texas guard Justin Mason: Kevin was a leader by example. He thrived on sucking the life out of a building. That carried over to everyone else. We liked playing on the road, and I think it was because of Kevin. He was so good that his game traveled wherever he went. His confidence carried over to everyone.

   

Durant went 5-of-5 from beyond the arc in the first half and had 25 points at intermission. Trailing 54-42, Kansas' players trudged into the locker room filled with frustration.     

Kansas guard Jeremy Case: Before Coach Self came in, we were talking and I said, "Brandon, don't let him catch the ball. Just don't let him catch it." Brandon was like, "Oh, OK! You try to stop him if you think it's that easy." (Laughs)

Then Coach Self came in and started going off. "Y'all are going to let this guy come in here and score 50 on y'all? Seriously?"

            

Rush: Coach came in and said all we have to do is stop one guy. Slow him down a little bit; don't let him have a crazy half and we can win the game.

               

Chalmers: Coach Self was like, 'OK, we took the first hit. It can't get any worse, especially at home. We're already down by 20. We're either going to come back or we're going to go down by 20 more." Then things just clicked.

We had a great defensive team that year. At times, certain people turned into space cadets on defense. When we had those moments, we looked like a bad defensive team. That happened in the first half, and they picked us apart. Plus, D.J. and A.J. were hitting all sorts of [wild] shots. They were hitting on all cylinders, and we couldn't do anything. That changed after intermission.

             

Indeed, Kansas looked like a completely different team early in the second half, when a 29-11 scoring run resulted in a 71-65 lead for the Jayhawks with 11:11 remaining. Moments later, Durant injured his ankle on a shot attempt near the Texas bench and was taken to the locker room for treatment.

Though Durant returned after turning his ankle, the Longhorns soon lost the momentum they had built against the Jayhawks.
Though Durant returned after turning his ankle, the Longhorns soon lost the momentum they had built against the Jayhawks.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Barnes: He rolled his ankle right in front of me. When he did it, I kid you not, the outside of his ankle bone touched the ground. My initial thoughts were, He's going to be out for two weeks.

What was impressive was that he finished the shot, almost made it. At that point, we called timeout and took him out of the game. I knew it was going to be tough for us, because he had been controlling the game, and now we'd have to depend on so many other freshmen.

             

Townsend: There was a hush in the crowd when KD turned his ankle in the second half. But when he got up to leave the court he got a standing ovation. It just showed me, "Wow, these people get it."

             

Durant: That was really classy. I think they respected us and our team and our coach. And they respected me. That game was to see who won the regular-season championship. But at that moment they didn't care about any of that. It was about showing class and sportsmanship. That's a moment I'll always remember.

              

Self: I loved how they applauded for him. Our fans realize the game was bigger than a win or a loss. They were witnessing greatness.

           

Barnes: About 10 minutes later, Todd Wright, our strength and conditioning coach, came up and said, "KD is ready." He'd been back in the locker room getting treatment from our training staff. I couldn't believe it. I said, "What? Are you serious? I'm not going to play him if he's hurt!" Todd said, "He swears he's ready to go." So we put him back in the game, and you'd have never known he got hurt.

           

Dooley: Our fans gave him another standing ovation as he ran back onto the court. I was hoping he was OK, but I didn't want to see him come back in the game. I don't think any of us did. But I guess he got tired wearing Julian and Brandon out so we could actually guard him.

           

Kansas led 81-72 when Durant returned at the 7:19 mark of the second half. And it was 88-80 before back-to-back three-pointers by Durant and Abrams pulled the Longhorns within two, 88-86, with 23 seconds remaining. Wright's free throw extended KU's lead to 89-86, and then Wright essentially won the game for Kansas by blocking Augustin's three-point attempt with 12 seconds to go.

Durant: The momentum was gone at that point. My ankle had stiffened up. They taped it up again and I ran back on the court. I wanted to keep going but I was mad that it had stopped my momentum—and our momentum as a team. We were on a roll. It was an amazing experience in the Big 12 at that time. I'm lucky I got a chance to play in that arena.

           

Mason: Kevin getting hurt was the game-changer. It also cost everyone in Allen Fieldhouse that day a chance of witnessing something historic, because he was on his way to putting up 50. That's something no one would've ever forgotten.

Bolstered by the presence of multiple future NBA first-rounders, Kansas overcame Durant's 32 points and a 16-point deficit to top Texas 90-86.
Bolstered by the presence of multiple future NBA first-rounders, Kansas overcame Durant's 32 points and a 16-point deficit to top Texas 90-86.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Still, you have to take your hat off to Kansas. Of all the teams I played against in my career, Kansas is the one I have the most respect for. They were the ultimate competitors. We had them down by 16 and they came back and were resilient.

            

Abrams: I know the one thing that you never want to hear is that "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" chant near the end of the game. You never want to hear that. We were getting close to the end of the game and we heard it, and I was like, "S--t!"

The year before, they'd rallied to beat us in the Big 12 tournament championship game. Now we were near the end of the game at Phog Allen and they'd come back on us again. With about two minutes to go, Russell Robinson walked up to me and kinda whispered, "Well, we did it to y'all again, didn't we?" I was like, "Bro…yes, you did! Now get out of my face!"

             

Kansas won 90-86 and held Durant to just seven points in the second half, and he finished with 32. Augustin (19 points, 13 assists) and Abrams (18 points) also had big games for Texas. Chalmers led Kansas with 21 points and was 5-of-5 from three-point range. Robinson (17 points) and Wright (17 points, 13 rebounds) had banner performances, too.               

Collins: KD is one guy that is always going to have the ultimate respect from me. What he did to us that day…no one ever did that to us. Nobody ever took over a game like that.

That was the first time I've seen our fans cheer for someone else like that. I couldn't blame them. He had our respect, too. We're lucky he sprained his ankle. We probably would've lost.

    

Jankovich: I remember leaving that game thinking, That's the best player I've ever been in a game with, in all of my years of playing and coaching. There's no way he won't be the MVP of the NBA one year. I'd never seen a guy his size shoot the ball that well, from that range, while under so much duress at that age. It was amazing.

          

Barnes: You can't talk about anything except winning with Kevin. He'd give up every award he received to win a championship. Our whole thing was, "We're going to win this league." Kevin wasn't a guy you had to jack up or hype up. The bigger the moment, the better he was. We started four freshmen and had a few more coming off the bench. I promise you, they all followed Kevin's lead.

I remember calling him over to the sideline one game and saying, "You're one of the best team players I've ever been around. But we've got to forget that right now, man. You've got to take this game over." He rarely wanted to do that. He's such a team player. But the Kansas game was a prime example of him taking over a game.

             

Mason: Kevin was a pro even before he became a pro. He handled his business like a veteran.

KD is a cliche. Everyone always says the politically-right things about their teammates, but with him, every compliment is genuine and true. Yes, he's really that humble. Yes, he really works that hard. Yes, he was a great teammate back then. And I'm sure he is now.

Everything always seemed so easy for him. Even today, he'll have 30 and 15 and it seems like he's having a bad game. That's how it was back then, too. We'd look up and he'd have 30 and 20 and I'd be like, "Dang, I had no idea he'd scored that much."

We were so young, like little puppies out there. It started to hit us at the end of conference play just how good he was. He started rolling and putting up those massive 30 and 20 games. When he went on those rolls is when we knew he was on a whole different level.

               

Durant: I'll always remember the energy in the arena at tipoff, and how quiet they were in the first half. But Kansas was so good and they were so deep, they eventually just wore us down. That was their third Big 12 title in a row and now the streak is at 13. It's unbelievable. Kansas has such a great program.

Our game against them was one of my favorite experiences at Texas. You play against those guys in AAU in the summers and then you see them in college. They can relate to the journey you're on. It's pretty cool to see where we all are now and think back on that game.

            

Self: That's the baddest man I've ever seen play in person. We had two lottery picks trying to guard him and neither one could even come close to having an effect. He was having so much fun. From a fan standpoint, it worked out perfect. Their team won, and our crowd got a chance to see something special.

I've only seen Kevin once since then to give him crap about it. It was at Cole Aldrich's wedding. I was like, "You may be leading the NBA in scoring, but you've got a goose egg against us, big fella."

              

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR

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