The two winningest programs in men’s college basketball history will renew acquaintance in Rupp Arena on Saturday at 6:15 p.m., the first time Go Big Blue has played Rock Chalk Jayhawk in Lexington since a 65-59 Kansas victory Jan. 9, 2005.
From the long view, UK has had the clear upper hand over KU.
The Wildcats have more all-time wins (2,222 to 2,204) and a higher all-time winning percentage (76.4 to 72.5). Kentucky has made more trips to the Final Four (17 to 14) and claimed more NCAA titles (eight to three).
Yet, in one area, Kansas is in the midst of a basketball achievement that should turn even regal Kentucky a little green with envy.
Self and the Jayhawks have won outright or shared every Big 12 regular-season championship since the 2004-05 season.
Put another way, we’re on our third president of the United States since Kansas did not win the Big 12.
If Kansas (18-2, 7-1 Big 12) can surmount (or tie) Baylor (19-1, 7-1) and claim a 13th straight league crown it would match the run UCLA had in the conference now known as the Pac-12 when the Bruins won the league title every year from 1967 through 1979.
For comparison, the longest streak of league championships in Big Ten history is five, produced by Ohio State from 1960-1964. In the ACC, it is also five, done by Duke from 1997 through 2001.
Long the kingpin of SEC basketball, Kentucky’s best stretch of consecutive league titles came from 1944-45 through 1951-52, when Adolph Rupp’s Cats won or shared eight straight crowns.
The Cats’ program was suspended by the NCAA for the 1952-53 season due to rules improprieties, ending UK’s run. After the one-season stoppage, UK and Rupp came back to win two more SEC championships in a row before Alabama broke through in 1955-56.
What makes the present streak by Kansas so impressive is that, as basketball leagues go, the Big 12 is no joke.
While it may lack a Duke to balance out Kansas as the league’s North Carolina, the Big 12 was the top-rated league in the RPI at the end of the prior three seasons. So far in 2016-17, it is rated second behind the ACC.
For my money, Kansas and Self don’t get enough credit for having won 12 straight regular-season championships in a major conference where strong hoops is played.
I have a theory on why.
For good and bad, college basketball perceptions now are almost exclusively shaped by NCAA Tournament outcomes.
Under Self, Kansas has been the epitome of a March Madness boom-and-bust program.
Since the coach arrived in Lawrence (2003-04), KU has won an NCAA title (2008), reached the finals (2012) a second time and made the Elite Eight six times. Over that time period, Kansas actually has one more NCAA tourney win (30-12) than Kentucky (29-10).
However, Kansas has also failed to make the second weekend of the Big Dance five times in those 13 NCAA Tournaments.
In the Self era, no elite program has done more to make magical March memories for mid-majors than Kansas. Since 2005, the Jayhawks have lost NCAA Tournament games to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, VCU and Wichita State.
The erratic NCAA Tournament narrative Kansas has produced has served to obscure the magnitude of the Jayhawks’ league championship streak.
Which is too bad.
In an era of roster instability and mass parity in major college men’s basketball, the 12 straight Big 12 titles produced by KU under Self is one of the most impressive achievements in modern American team sports.