DALLAS — Devonte Graham wanted a team to call his own at Kansas, and didn’t want to be responsible for the end of a Big 12 regular-season championship streak that now covers all but the first of coach Bill Self’s 15 seasons.
The senior guard accomplished both, despite some doubts along the way. Now Graham will try to get the sixth-ranked Jayhawks to the Final Four after predecessor Frank Mason III came up a game short the past two years.
First, though, Graham will savor the NCAA-record 14th straight conference title that broke a tie with UCLA (1967-79). It came a little faster than expected thanks to a five-game winning streak that overtook No. 12 Texas Tech, which has dropped four straight and fallen to third place.
Kansas (24-6, 13-4 Big 12) finishes the regular season at Oklahoma State on Saturday.
“The league is extremely tough from top to bottom,” Graham said. “It’s like no days off. You don’t just walk in and get an easy win. For us, with the things that people say about us being undersized, no bench, can’t rebound, all of this blah, blah. We just stuck to what we knew.”
After consecutive losses to Washington and Arizona State early in the season, Graham said those people were tweeting that he, fellow senior Svi Mykhailiuk and the rest of the Jayhawks didn’t deserve to wear KU blue. Graham took note.
Two months later, KU dropped two of three in conference, including the third loss of the season at famed Allen Fieldhouse, the most since the 1998-99 season.
The Jayhawks haven’t lost since, and those top two scorers were serenaded on senior night when Kansas clinched the outright Big 12 title with a win over Texas.
“It just helped me go out and be better and want it more,” Graham said of the comments on social media. “I know we all wanted it, obviously. The negative comments and seeing people doubt us made us have a chip on our shoulder.”
The win at Texas Tech that clinched at least a tie for the title last Saturday illustrated the season. The Jayhawks never trailed but never could put away the Red Raiders, who were hampered by leading scorer Keenan Evans’ toe injury.
“I don’t think Kansas gets enough credit for how tough they are,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “Their identity is their talent and their Hall of Fame coach and their great home court. But they also have a big-time toughness to them.”
Graham put an NBA career on hold knowing the Jayhawks would need to replace Mason’s leadership. When potential one-and-done freshman Billy Preston never got to start his KU career and ultimately turned pro by going to Bosnia, Graham’s importance grew.
“I’ve sang his praises pretty hard here,” Self said. “I honestly believe what I’m singing, without question. I certainly hope the voters for the (conference) player of the year don’t just look at stats. To me, with what he did with these guys, I think that was pretty unmatched in our league.”
Even if Graham can’t get the Jayhawks to the Final Four for the first time since 2012, at least he can say he wasn’t in charge of the team that stopped a league championship streak that’s a source of pride for one of the country’s top programs.
“It’s big for the fans,” Graham said. “It’s bigger for them. I’m just a small part of it. I’ve won four of them out of the 14. It’s just being a part of history.”
He also carried the Jayhawks from second place in the Big 12 at 8-4 to a team in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It would be KU’s third straight year as a top seed.
“We won the league sometimes where we didn’t have to sweat as much,” Self said. “But we’ve also won a lot of times we’re a game back with six left too. This league race felt a little bit different to me because I think there’s more teams on your schedule that can beat you every time you play.”
Now that he doesn’t have to sweat the Big 12 streak anymore, Graham can focus on the bigger prize.