Past KU players react as Jayhawks close in on Kentucky for most college basketball wins

Bill Haber/AP
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Resembling a prize Thoroughbred galloping down the backstretch on a crowded Bluegrass State racetrack, Kansas’ men’s basketball players and coaches are threatening to catch, then pass the Kentucky Wildcats one of these days.

The Jayhawks, who have closed the gap on the Wildcats on the NCAA men’s college basketball victory list by 48 games during the 19-year Bill Self era, trail the country’s winningest team by just three victories (2,343 for Kentucky; 2,340 for KU) entering Saturday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge at Allen Fieldhouse.

Tipoff is 5 p.m., with the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks (17-2) hoping to prevail over No. 12 Kentucky (16-4) and cut the deficit in the all-time wins column to two.

“I think it’d be cool to be part of that. It would be neat to say I played for a school that is the winningest program in NCAA history,” former KU and NBA center Greg Ostertag said Thursday in a phone interview with The Star. He competed for KU from 1992-95, never squaring off against Kentucky in his four years of college.

“That speaks a lot for the tradition of basketball at KU. They’ve been a prominent team, a prominent force for 100 years,” Ostertag added. “Yes I’d be proud. If you are a Jayhawk and not proud of passing Kentucky there’s something wrong with you,” the native Texan added.

North Carolina, by the way, is third with 2,308 all-time wins, while Duke is fourth at 2,230 entering the weekend.

“That’s why you go to KU — to win and win big. To hold onto that No. 1 spot, I’d feel very special. It’d give those (current) players something to be proud of and continue to work toward,” said former KU guard Russell Robinson, who went 3-0 versus Kentucky as a player from 2005-08.

“I’d definitely feel happy to contribute to it,” Robinson added. “It’s only the beginning. There’s a long way to go. It’s a good start. I think it’s a testament to all the hard work put into the program by great coaches, fans and players,” the New York native added Thursday.

Kentucky, which is 2,343-732, is 23-10 versus KU, which is 2,340-873 overall. The Jayhawks are 7-4 versus the Wildcats in the Self era, 4-4 in direct coaching matchups between Self and UK’s John Calipari.

KU has won four in a row over the Wildcats in Allen Fieldhouse, but is just 5-7 against UK there overall.

KU’s pursuit of Kentucky on the all-time wins list has been something to monitor the past few college basketball campaigns. For instance, a year ago Kentucky won just nine games to KU’s 21, the Jayhawks picking up 12 games in one season.

“That’s big time. That’s awesome to be able to say you are a part of it. When it gets to that level (of winning) it’s just humbling,” former KU guard Michael Lee, a graduate student manager on KU’s 2008 NCAA title team and player from 2002-05 said Thursday.

KU played Kentucky once in his four years. The Jayhawks prevailed, 65-59, during Lee’s senior year (2004-05) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

“I think of amazing teammates — the (Kirk) Hinrichs, the (Drew) Goodens, the Christian Moodys, the Steve Vinsons, Brett Ballards, the unsungs too,” Lee said, adding, “I could go on (naming players) for days. Kansas to me is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Former KU guard Ryan Robertson — he scored 31 points versus Kentucky in the Jayhawks’ 92-88 second-round NCAA Tournament loss to the Wildcats on March 14, 1999 in New Orleans after losing to UK, 63-45, in Chicago in the Great Eight earlier that season — said he wasn’t aware KU had inched to within three games of UK.

“Being at the top of the mountain would really be special,” said Robertson. His KU teams went 0-2 vs. Kentucky. “It’s really nice to have something where people go, ‘Wow.’ It adds to really good TV for Saturday. It should be ESPN’s dream to have these two teams playing in Allen Fieldhouse. It’ll be amazing,” Robertson added.

Robertson noted there are a lot of categories that could go toward determining the best college program of all time.

“All-time wins is great to have on your resume,” Robertson said. “Also, national championships, conference championships, All-Americans. This one would be an awesome notch on our belt.”

KU has won three NCAA Tournament championships and two Helms national titles. Kentucky has won eight NCAA titles and two Helms crowns.

KU has won an all-time best 62 conference regular-season titles, while Kentucky is second at 55. KU has 30 consensus first-team All-Americans, most of any school. North Carolina is second at 27 and Kentucky and Purdue tied for third with 26.

“I think it speaks to consistency,” former KU guard Lee, player personnel scout for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, said of KU remaining at or near the top in many categories during its pursuit of first on the all-time wins list.

“Coach Self continues to perfect his craft. Kentucky has maybe had some ups and downs. Coach has kept moving straight. Coach is a beast. He has withstood it all. He’s been a rock,” Lee added of Self.

“I think he’s got a great formula — his relationship with the fans, having a great homecourt advantage, finding ways to get those tough road wins that coach Self has been able to get,” said Robinson, who recently decided to retire from competitive basketball. He’s looking to possibly coach in the future.

“(Also) recruiting and maintaining good character guys. It’s a concerted effort from all angles,” Robinson added.

Robertson, co-head of U.S. Distribution at FS Investments in St. Charles, Missouri, said the shrinking of the deficit in the all-time win list is a credit to Self.

“Any title, any sort of records that have shrunk or been like that, that credit goes to coach Self,” Robertson said. “He would probably say it’s the players. I probably shouldn’t speak for him. If we were down 50 and it’s now down to three, yes it’s Bill Self,” Robertson noted.

Robertson said passing Kentucky someday would “not spur me on to call (teammates) and crack open a bottle of champagne, but it would be a very special thing, something special to be part of.”

“I hate to be corny or cheesy,” Robertson added, “but I think about the last 25 years or so of Kansas basketball. If you are a fan, what a fun ride. The older I get I get really proud of what coach Self has done, what coach (Roy) Williams has done. The program at Kansas … I got to be a very, very, very small part of that. I’m super proud of everything that’s gone on there the last 120 years,” Robertson stated.

As far as KU and Kentucky … yes, they are rivals even though they are in different conferences, Robinson, a starter on KU’s 2008 NCAA title team, said from New York.

“It’s a great rivalry,” Robinson said, “but I always joke with those people from North Carolina and Kentucky — all those roots kind of come back to KU. Adolph Rupp (Kentucky coaching legend) went to KU. Dean Smith (North Carolina coaching legend) went to KU. At the end of the day I feel KU is kind of responsible for their successful ways,” Robinson added.

“Right now,” he noted, pointing to the present and Saturday’s game and the continuation of successful seasons for KU, “the main focus is to win championships (Big 12, NCAA). At the end of the season you see where everything lands, maybe celebrate things then. Now you stay focused, take it one at a time because we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

What’s Self’s take on all this?

He was asked in a media Zoom call prior to last season’s NCAA Tournament “how important (being No. 1 on win list) would it be for the pride of the program?”

“I will tell you this, I think Kentucky has rightfully so used that as a recruiting tool for decades. (They say), ‘We are the winningest program in the history of college basketball’ and rightfully so.,” Self said.

“We’ve said we are the second winningest program in the history of college basketball. I don’t know that either one of those statements actually gets you a player (recruit) in today’s times. I do think it adds interest and certainly adds pride with your loyal fanbases and your alums.

“We are in a situation where obviously I am aware that we’ve narrowed the gap. If we were able to win a national championship (and pass UK in the process) I would tell everybody in the world what was going on. That’s something that I don’t think that something that happened in the 1930s really translates to how successful a program is now. I do wish we had that feather in our cap. I know Kentucky has been very proud that they have had that feather in their cap for a long time. It would be nice to catch them. It would be. We have a lot of work left to do with that,” Self stated.

The bottom line is ... “it’d be nice to have that distinction. That’s not anything I’ll lose one second of sleep over,” Self said last season.

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