LAWRENCE — Already outright Big 12 champion, one might surmise the No. 6-ranked Kansas basketball team has little to play for in its regular-season finale.
Not true, says head coach Bill Self, who argued NCAA Tournament seeding and individual accolades will be on the line when the Jayhawks (24-6, 13-4 Big 12) travel to Oklahoma State for a 3 p.m. Saturday tilt at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Also at stake will be Self’s own streak of coaching 102 consecutive home-and-home, regular-season conference series without being swept — though the hall of famer isn’t certain defending that particular streak will resonate with his players as much as fighting for a 14th straight conference championship did.
“I don’t know if Lagerald (Vick) and Malik (Newman) are lying awake at night thinking, ‘God, I really want this for Coach.’ I don’t think that’s under consideration,” Self said Thursday. “So if they know about it, they know about it, but that’s not going to be anything that will be motivation for them.
“They may be mad enough at me that they’ll say, ‘OK, this will be a good way to get his (butt) back,’ too.”
Saturday’s game potentially has national implications, Self said. As a result, he hasn’t considered changing his approach in terms of resting Devonte’ Graham (37.4 minutes per game), Svi Mykhailiuk (34.6 mpg) or anyone else.
“Not at all,” he said.
The Jayhawks also will play as many as three Big 12 Tournament games next week at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., beginning with a 1:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal.
“So certainly,” Self said of the matchup with the Cowboys (17-13, 7-10), “we’ll play to win.”
While Self is still focused on Saturday, he did address what he believes to be KU’s standing with the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Pegged as the second two-seed on the Feb. 11 bracket preview show, the Jayhawks have since won five straight games and, according to bracketology composite outlet bracketmatrix.com, are currently projected as the third overall seed in the tournament.
If that holds, KU would leap Xavier and secure the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, meaning the Jayhawks’ path to a Final Four would go through nearby cities Wichita and Omaha, Neb.
“If we were to win, I think we’d put ourselves in a great position,” Self said. “I was asked this earlier — I believe there are seven or eight teams, maybe more, maybe nine, that are in play for a one-seed, and I think we’re one of those. Whether or not we’re on the one-line now, who knows?”
One factor working in KU’s favor could be the team’s 11 so-called Quadrant 1 victories, part of a four-quadrant system being used for the first time by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Quadrant 1 victories use RPI rankings and are classified as any home win against a team ranked 1-25, any neutral-court win against a team ranked 1-50 and any road win against a team ranked 1-75.
KU is 11-3 in Quadrant 1 opportunities and 8-2 in its chances at second-tier Quadrant 2 wins.
“We put ourselves in a good position, but if we don’t finish strong and somebody else does, we don’t deserve it,” Self said. “So I think the only path is to win.”
Regardless whether the Jayhawks finish on the one- or two-line or whether the group has potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups in Omaha, Los Angeles or elsewhere, KU fans should sleep easy knowing Self isn’t too concerned with what path his squad is given when the bracket is revealed March 11.
For a case study in what Self is saying, look no further than the team’s season-ending defeat to Oregon in last season’s Elite Eight, a contest played about 40 miles east of Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think locations are way overrated,” Self said. “I mean, it would be nice to stay closer to home in Wichita or whatnot, but last year we had an opportunity and we didn’t make the most of it, and we’ll never have a better home court opportunity than we did last year playing in Kansas City. I also think sometimes when that happens and you’re not playing well, it can also add pressure and stuff. So, to me, whatever it is doesn’t make any difference.”
Newman said he doesn’t pay attention to in-season bracketology, save for the occasional mention on ESPN programming. Even if the Jayhawks end up in a hostile environment in the tournament’s second weekend, the sophomore guard indicated that won’t be an intimidating situation for the team, which has gone 7-2 in true road contests this year.
“I think those games, they at times do bring out the best of us,” Newman said. “Just having our back against the wall, knowing it’s just the guys that flew on that plane with us, I think it makes us come more together. I think we do play better in those environments at times, but I think we good in any environment, honestly, when we come to play.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to take the same path as the 16-seed if we want to win.”