FORT WORTH, Texas -- It feels like such a part of every recent Big 12 season that it's close to an annual rite of winter passage. At some point, Kansas runs into some struggles in conference play. And we start to wonder: Will this year be the year in which Bill Self's absurd streak of regular-season Big 12 titles, currently sitting at 14 years in a row, comes to an end?
A sampling of headlines from the past few days, after Kansas lost its Big 12 home opener to Texas Tech, its second loss at Allen Fieldhouse this season and the first time since the 2006-07 season where Kansas has lost more than one home game during a season:
"What's the matter with Kansas?" (The Ringer)
" 'We need to quit talking about winning the league' " (Kansas City Star)
Reading these wonderings about the end of Kansas' Big 12 streak, you can be excused for experiencing déjà vu. Perhaps back to February 2013, when a loss to a bad TCU team -- part of a three-game losing streak -- had Bill Self comparing his group to the Topeka YMCA. "It was the worst team that Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there," Self said. Perhaps back to the 2013-14 season, the team with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, which struggled through its nonconference schedule with four losses. Or perhaps back to the 2014-15 season, when several Big 12 teams seemed primed to steal the Big 12 crown: A Buddy Hield-led Oklahoma team, a frenetic West Virginia team, an Iowa State team with Georges Niang and Monte Morris.
But Kansas not winning the Big 12? It has never come to pass.
And yet something about this season has seemed ... different. When Kansas opened the new year with a home loss to Texas Tech, its fan base went into a state of something close to panic. It's not because one player or another is struggling, although to be certain there are some players who are struggling, none more than former McDonald's All-American Malik Newman, who has scored fewer than 10 points in six of his past nine games. It's because this Kansas team feels deeply flawed -- structurally flawed, at least until one or both of the big-men-in-waiting, Silvio De Sousa or Billy Preston, are declared eligible to play.
"We can play with two bigs or we can play with one big," Kansas head coach Bill Self said Saturday night, after escaping a trip to Fort Worth with an 88-84 victory against 16th-ranked TCU. "We haven't practiced playing with two bigs at all this year until this past week, when we thought that maybe we'd have another big or two. So we're a little confused. I'll be honest with you: It's confusing to us as a staff. I know it's confusing to the players. You go into it thinking, 'Well, we're going to play these guys 50 or 70 percent of the reps in practice.' And then we don't end up using them. So that's frustrating. But that's just the way it is."
"If we knew what dealing with it be different, but we don't really know what we're dealing with from a timing standpoint."
What they were dealing with Saturday night was a team that simply couldn't hang with TCU's big men. Kansas got outrebounded by 14; TCU grabbed 11 more rebounds than Kansas just on the offensive end. Center Udoka Azubuike played well when he was on the floor, but he was barely on the floor, fouling out late in the second half after playing only 13 minutes. It took a heroic effort from senior point guard Devonte' Graham ("He just didn't let us lose," Self said after Graham scored 28 points in 38 banged-up minutes) and a surprising bench boost from sophomore big man Mitch Lightfoot (six blocked shots, including on a late TCU 3-point attempt that sealed the game for Kansas) to pick up this solid road victory.
Kansas has shown two things this season you would expect from a team with such a shallow frontcourt: An overreliance on 3s and an inability to get to the free-throw line. Luckily, Kansas happens to be one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation -- 11 of 20 on Saturday night, boosting a team 3-point percentage that was already 18th in the country -- and on Saturday was remarkable at getting to the free-throw line, doing it 33 times (instead of a season average that's around 10, the worst free-throw rate in college basketball).
These are not sustainable ways to win high-level basketball games. Self knows this. A few years back, when Kansas was the shooting lights out for a spell from 3, Self called it "fool's gold," and sure enough, that 3-point percentage came back to earth.
These are also not sustainable ways to keep winning the Big 12.
And yet: Are you going to pick against Kansas?
If they get De Sousa and Preston, the point is moot; Kansas ought to be considered the Big 12 favorite hands down.
But even if they get neither player this season, would you rather pick a deeply flawed Kansas team, or anyone else in the Big 12?
The Big 12 is great this year. It's the best and deepest conference in college basketball. There's not an easy road game in the entire league. The league could send eight teams to the NCAA tournament.
Yet there's not another dominant team in the league. There's not an Oklahoma-with-Buddy-Hield, the experienced team that went to the Final Four. As Self recently said, 13-5 in Big 12 play ought to win the league. It wouldn't shock me, given the parity in the Big 12, if 12-6 even wins the league. It's going to be a slugfest. West Virginia and Texas Tech have separated themselves from the rest of the league. But it's so early.
And if there's one thing I've learned during the past 14 years, it's this: To take Bill Self-coached team -- even a flawed Bill Self-coached team that going through a rough patch -- over everyone else.
"That's every year when everybody doubts us, thinks that Kansas is not going to do it this year," Graham said. "But we're a family. We stick in our huddle. We all believe in each other. And hopefully at the end of the year it'll work out for us."