LAWRENCE — This Kansas basketball team is on a mission, albeit an unspoken one.
The Jayhawks want a new streak.
KU last season missed out on earning at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season conference championship, snapping a 14-year run that dated back to the 2004-05 campaign. That streak of league success was literally unparalleled — it broke UCLA’s previous major college basketball record of 13, set during the Bruins’ heyday (1967-79).
This league race appears paramount for the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks, who tip off conference play against No. 16 West Virginia at 3 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse — though no one has delivered a fiery speech on the subject just yet.
“Not so much,” said sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji, “but I know that’s on all of our minds.”
Minds, mind you, that may be freer this go-round.
Agbaji said pressure has “definitely” lessened without the team having to fret about defending a streak that began before many of them were even enrolled in kindergarten. Agbaji even acknowledged to feeling “somewhat” as if the team had let its predecessors down with last year's third-place finish — KU ended up two games back of Kansas State and Texas Tech, both of which had 14-4 league records.
“Feeling that pressure, especially last year, coming back on us wasn’t the best,” Agbaji said, “but moving into this year, we take that as motivation.”
KU (10-2) returns just two rotation players who went wire-to-wire last season — sophomores Devon Dotson and David McCormack. Agbaji sat the first half as the team originally intended to redshirt him, while Udoka Azubuike and Marcus Garrett missed large chunks of the season with injuries.
Everyone else is either a newcomer (Isaiah Moss, Christian Braun, Tristan Enaruna), a player who sat out last season (Silvio De Sousa) or one withheld this year (Mitch Lightfoot).
“I think we’re ready,” Agbaji said. “Definitely coming off of last year, the experience that we have in some parts — Doke (Azubuike), Marcus and me and Devon and David — just that experience, even going through one year of conference, knowing how every game is and every game is turned up and how much it means pretty much every possession in every game. ...
“(Conference play) means a lot. Like I said, last year we didn’t have an opportunity or guys didn’t have an opportunity to be on top of the conference. But moving into this year, we’re going to take it game by game, but our overall goal is to come out as champions.”
That buzz for the start of league play isn’t limited to the Jayhawk players.
“I am excited,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Every year it gets me fired up.”
KU’s coaches, Self said, are honest with players in nonconference play, identifying the six or seven “most important games” ahead of the Big 12 season. Self, however, indicated that would be a useless exercise when the 18-game league schedule kicks off — “They’re all equally important,” he explained.
“Yeah, I’m excited, and I think the players will be excited, as well,” Self said. “The one thing I don’t know that they understand, the newcomers, is how the intensity is going to be increased a couple of decibels compared to what they’re used to.”
Self said he hasn’t given thought to whether playing without the streak would be an advantage for his current group — “I think maybe last year they got tied up a little bit, but you know, it didn’t bother 14 other teams,” he said.
Still, he does think the Jayhawks' unfamiliar reality could serve as motivation, especially for the returning players.
“I certainly hope that’s the case,” Self said. “But I don’t see it helping or hurting really any extent at all.”
It’s too early to label the league race wide open, Self said, though he labeled key victories for WVU (67-59 over then-No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday in Cleveland), Texas Tech (70-57 over then-No. 1 Louisville on Dec. 10 in New York) and Baylor (three top-25 victories) as “certainly ... better wins than what Kansas has had.”
“Every team to me has shown they’re capable of, for the most part, beating anybody,” Self said. “I think what you do when you look at a race like this, you kind of look at consistency, because that’s who you are. But you also look at what their ceiling is, and there’s a lot of teams in our league with high ceilings, obviously.”
While KU’s own ceiling remains unknown, Agbaji thinks the Jayhawks are more than capable of sliding into the part of hunter in the league race after years of being the hunted.
“Obviously a different position or a different perspective I would say going into this year,” Agbaji said. "But I mean, we can play that role.”
Wilson redshirt remains to-be-determined
KU freshman Jalen Wilson (ankle) is participating in individual drills and “moving at about a snail’s pace, adding a little bit each and every day,” Self said. Wilson broke his left ankle during the Jayhawks’ second game, a 74-62 home victory over UNC Greensboro on Nov. 8.
“We’re hopeful, hopeful, (that) within a two-week period he could be released and be full-go,” Self said. “But we’re not at that point yet where he can have contact at all.”
KU is also not at the point where a decision has been made on whether to withhold Wilson for the entire season and seek a medical redshirt, said Self, who spoke with Wilson’s parents about that possibility Wednesday night.
“I don’t think you make a decision on what you want to do with him until you see how his health is,” Self said. “I mean, if he’s not 100%, why would you consider it? And if he is 100%, how does he fit in and does he have a chance to impact this team? And then if he’s able to do those things, then you make a decision at that particular time. But I think it’s too early now."
The 6-foot-8, 215-pound guard was the nation's No. 53 incoming prospect in the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.
“I’m hopeful and I know he’s hopeful that he can get to be 100%," Self said, "but right now, even though he’s on schedule, that still hasn’t happened yet.”