AUSTIN, Texas – The Kansas Jayhawks have finally earned their way to the top.
Prior to the road wins against Kansas State and Texas, I didn't think that Bill Self's team had differentiated itself from the Syracuses, Kentuckys and even the Villanovas of the world.
Self agreed and had no problem saying it publicly after his team's lone loss, on the road to Tennessee on Jan. 10.
He felt this team was basically handed the No. 1 spot by virtue of a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago, the return of its top two players and the addition of a heralded recruiting class.
But this team is different now.
Not necessarily because Cole Aldrich has been more assertive.
Not necessarily because freshman Xavier Henry is gradually beginning to figure it out.
Not necessarily because Marcus Morris has quietly become one of the most underrated players in the entire country.
And not necessarily because the return of Brady Morningstar from a first semester suspension makes the Jayhawks a more well-run machine on both ends of the court.
But because of all of them.
"That's why they're No. 1," Texas star forward Damion James said as he shook his head in disbelief.
"It's tough for anyone to say they have two better wins in the country," Aldrich said after the road victory at Texas on Monday night. "We're playing better, but we're still nowhere near where we need to be to win it all."
Against Texas, it was Henry -- after picking up splinters in crunch-time against Kansas State and Colorado -- who appeared to be more than just the soft one-dimensional perimeter shooter that he has shown to be throughout much of the season.
"It's been a long time coming," the talented freshman said after the win.
While Morningstar may have taken a few ill-advised shots down the stretch, he's not afraid to take them, moves the ball and is clearly the Jayhawks' most competent perimeter defender.
Although Aldrich and Sherron Collins struggled to make shots and were just, as Aldrich put it, "5-of-100" last night (the duo was really 5-of-23), the Jayhawks showed they can win games due to their defense and role guys.
Texas is hardly an offensive juggernaut, but it was still impressive for the Jayhawks to hold a Longhorns team that was No. 1 not all that long ago scoreless for nearly 11 consecutive minutes in the first half.
Sophomore guard Tyshawn Taylor, who was thought to be headed to the NBA by some after this season, has been a major disappointment this year and is coming off the bench as a role guy.
Henry has barely begun to scratch the surface, Aldrich's numbers (11.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.8 bpg) are hardly eye-popping for a guy expected to be an All-American candidate and Morningstar missed the first nine games.
Yet Kansas is still No. 1.
Everyone talked about how deep Self's Jayhawks were prior to the start of the season, but he immediately removed two players out of the equation by redshirting Mario Little and Travis Releford.
Freshman big man Thomas Robinson has seen his role greatly reduced lately, getting more than six minutes in a game just twice since Jan. 2, and talented freshman guard Elijah Johnson hasn't even seen the floor in the last four games.
Self played just eight guys in the win against Texas.
"It may not be the best thing for the future, but it's the best thing for this team right now," Self said.
Can't argue with that.
The Jayhawks are 23-1 and a perfect 9-0 in arguably the best league in America.
"That's the thing that kind of cracks me up," Self said. "Deservedly so, people can say we haven't played great. But if you're sitting there with five road wins in a hard league, then you probably haven't played poorly, either. That's where we're at right now."
Where they belong. At the top.