There was almost an air of resignation about the selection of the Kansas Jayhawks as pre-season Big 12 co-champions in mid-October.
There were just so many unknowns with Head Coach Bill Self's squad. For starters, it was staggering how much playing time and production they lost from a season ago.
Marcus and Markieff Morris? Gone. Mario Little, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed? Graduated. Josh Selby? Left after one year for the NBA Draft.
That left only Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor as the only remaining players to average more than 14 minutes per game in 2010-2011. The other returning players of note - Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey - combined to average little more than 30 per contest.
And the bench…man, the bench. With the pre-season announcement that freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor would be ineligible for competition until next year, Self's reserve units looked thin before a single whistle had been blown at practice. Most figured senior guard Conner Teahan would be called upon early and often, but beyond him things got murky fast.
Kevin Young? Justin Wesley? Naadir Tharpe? All were unknown quantities. How were they going to replace all those points, rebounds and minutes - and still compete at the level Kansas demands?
The truth is, Jayhawk Nation was bracing itself for a "down year"; which at a place like Kansas, with the expectations maintained by this program, meant something in the realm of 7-8 losses and a four-seed.
Nobody ever claimed Jayhawks fans weren't spoiled by the embarrassment of riches Self has heaped upon them during his tenure on Mount Oread, after all.
But there it was nonetheless- the coaches picked them to finish atop the league once more, sharing the pinnacle with Texas A&M. The general sentiment seemed to be this was more a concession to Self than anything, who had guided Kansas to at least a share of seven straight Big 12 championships, a staggering feat.
The national media referred frequently to all the Jayhawks had lost, and used phrases such as "Self's least talented team" when describing the squad.
The players heard the chatter. How could they not? It was everywhere.
In a shocking lack of regard for public perception, however, they've spent the past five months defying the experts - claiming their eighth consecutive Big 12 Championship - outright, no less - dropping just a pair of conference games and emerging yet again as a favorite for a one seed in the Big Dance.
Though others may have doubted, they never lost faith in themselves.
"People definitely didn't think we were going to be number three in the nation or number four in the nation by this time of year," Withey said. "We thought we were this good though. Everyone inside the locker room, we knew that we had some talent and that we could come out and play."
"Every year we expect that," Releford added. "It's just going into this season a lot of people didn't have faith in us because we lost so much last year."
One thing the Jayhawks had going for them was age; not experience, necessarily, but age. Though Johnson, Releford, Robinson and Withey were seeing their first action as starters, all had played to one degree or another and had spent at least two years in the program.
During that time, they began to understand what Self expected of them when their time came to answer the bell.
"We know what Coach wants, we know how to run the system, and we've just been doing that," Releford said. "We felt like this whole year we had a lot to prove, every game coming out."
Their coach was less certain of how they would react to the spotlight, however, and naturally so. It's a whole different set of pressures when what you do on the court actually matters, he explained, and the stakes are raised.
"A lot of people say they want it, but then are they actually ready for it?" Self said. "A lot of backup quarterback think they should be the signal-caller until it's the fourth quarter and you've gotta go the length of the field, and they're rushing five or six on you every time. It's something you've gotta go through and get used to, I think."
They didn't have much time to get acclimated, either. There was no easing into the season for this squad. Instead, they hit the ground running versus one of the toughest schedules in the country, facing the likes of Kentucky, Georgetown, Duke and Ohio State before stepping into the maw of the 18-game gauntlet that was the Big 12 regular season.
There were bumps, yes, but fewer than expected. A 10-point loss to Kentucky on Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden was softened by strong play in the Maui Invitational, where the Jayhawks took out Georgetown and UCLA before going to the wire with Duke in the tournament championship game.
The low point came Dec. 19 versus Davidson at the Sprint Center in Kansas City - a contest Kansas lost after drubbing Ohio State at Allen Fieldhouse a week and a half earlier.
But then conference play began and something just seemed to click. A team which had been laboring to find ways to win suddenly looked more and more like a well-oiled machine. And even with the limited bench at his disposal, Self found a way to make it work, squeezing the most out of Teahan, Young and Wesley.
Robinson (the Big 12 Player of the Year) had performed at a high level all season long - a level reserved for National Player of the Year candidates - but other players began to step up along side him – most notably Taylor.
A three-year starter, the senior point guard had yet to average 10 points per game in a season. Throughout his career in Lawrence, Kan., he had been a study in contrasts, brilliant one minute and maddening the next, never looking as if he were quite comfortable in his own skin on the court.
That all changed in January though, when the New Jersey native simply exploded. Not literally of course, but the reaction from analysts and fans wouldn't have been much different had that happened, so drastic has been in the improvement in Taylor's play.
To date, he is averaging more than 17 points and almost five assists, shooting 43-percent from beyond the arc in more than 33 minutes per game. He has made himself all but unguardable on offense and a frequent lockdown defender on defense. His was recently named a unanimous selection to the All-Big 12 first team, and is unquestionably one of the best guards in the country.
And as good as Robinson and Taylor have been, the spotlight hasn't always shone on them. Withey was a third-team All-Big 12 selection and the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. His 100 blocked shots is the most in the Big 12, the fifth-highest total in conference history and the second-best single-season mark in Kansas history.
Releford has earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors and is a staunch defender, and Johnson has proven himself to be a jack of all trades. Teahan, Wesley, Young and even freshman point guard Tharpe have all contributed valuable minutes and production in their own way.
Somewhere along the way, the Jayhawks began not just exceeding expectations, but blowing by them with all the force and speed of an out of control freight train.
"The biggest thing is the ball moves," Self said, when asked for the biggest difference in his team from the beginning of the season to now. "We trust a little bit more, and guys probably have their roles in their minds defined to the point where they know exactly when to be aggressive and when not to be. That kind of stuff."
"In the beginning of the year, I think we really struggled with turning the ball over," Withey added. "We weren't meshing as a team, and I think throughout the year we've definitely cut back on that. I think we're all playing and have a lot of fun just playing with each other."
Regardless of what happened from this point forward, with the Big 12 Tournament kicking off Wednesday at the Sprint Center, for the Jayhawks this season has been a resounding success.
But Kansas fans shouldn't unbuckle those seat belts just yet, because this team has the look and feel of one ready to do some damage.