With Saturday’s seven-point win against an improved TCU squad, Kansas appeared to be in the fast lane to another conference title. However, with Tuesday night’s blowout loss to Oklahoma State, the Big 12 seems to be as balanced it has been in recent years.
Coming into Monday, there was a four-way tie atop the conference with all four teams boasting just one loss. However, Kansas’ loss and Oklahoma’s loss at Iowa State changed that. Each of these four teams at the top of the Big 12 have played Kansas, and the only one to beat the Jayhawks was West Virginia, which got KU in Morgantown. Tuesday’s loss muddies the water to some degree, but the Jayhawks are still in a strong position without another slip-up.
Similar to football, the Big 12 will be decided over a two-week stretch toward the end of the year. The difference is that Kansas is in the heart of the race and not at the bottom of the league. The Jayhawks host West Virginia on Feb. 9, travel to Oklahoma on Feb. 13, and then to Baylor on Feb. 23.
After getting smoked in Stillwater on Tuesday, Kansas now has a questionable loss on its resume. The Jayhawks fell to a member of the Big 12’s lower tier, which also includes Texas Tech and TCU. The good news for Bill Self: There’s plenty of time to recover.
Kansas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia all began this week in the AP Top 10. While all three teams are deep, Kansas owns a combination of strong guard play and the experience of Perry Ellis up front. The trio of Wayne Selden, Jr., Frank Mason, and Devonte Graham gives the Jayhawks arguably the strongest backcourt in the nation. Having Ellis on the floor takes pressure off the guards, relieving them from the sense that they have to do everything. This dynamic must continue to exist for the Jayhawks if they’re going to win the Big 12 (at least a share of it) for the 12th straight season.
Kansas also is not afraid to use its bench, with several players seeing the court in the 10- to 20-minute range every night. Roster depth could wear on Oklahoma, since the Sooners are very starter-dominant. When one of those starters is Buddy Hield it is hard to argue with the use of a shorter rotation by Lon Kruger, but fatigue could play a role down the stretch, especially for a team that is so reliant on making outside shots.
As for West Virginia, the Mountaineers have used their up-tempo style and full-court press to take them to the top of the conference. They ran rings around Kansas in order to establish their place at the top of the league. In the recent contest, the Mountaineers forced the Jayhawks to turn the ball over 22 times, which was 10 more than their season average coming into that game.
West Virginia has more size than Kansas, but WVU’s main disadvantage is the same as last season – when they are cold, they are ice cold, and they lack a Plan B. It is not uncommon to see West Virginia shooting in the 30-percent range for games. Cold spells don’t win down the stretch in close games, regardless of how good your defense is. Free throw shooting ultimately doomed West Virginia in the loss at Oklahoma on Saturday, which can be included under the larger umbrella of “cold shooting streaks.”
The reason Kansas is still the favorite to repeat as Big 12 champions is the versatility it boasts, regardless of Tuesday night’s loss to Oklahoma State. Oklahoma has to have Buddy Hield on the floor and playing well in order to win. Iowa State needs either Monte Morris or Georges Niang to be highly effective (if not both). West Virginia might not filter its offense through one player to the diminishment of others, but the Mountaineers are very dependent on one style of play, such that if it doesn’t work, they lack other ways of winning games.
Kansas has more different players who can carry the scoring workload. Selden, Graham, Mason, Ellis — they can all create and make shots when they need to. The Jayhawks looked terrible against Oklahoma State, but keep in mind that they looked very bad at times last season as well, and fought through their limitations to extend their Big 12 title streak to 11.
Would you really want to bet against Bill Self in the pursuit of another conference championship? This season, the idea of a “Big 12″ title is a bit more literal in Lawrence. The Jayhawks would achieve something very special if their dominance can extend to a dozen straight league trophies.
Their pedigree and their versatility suggest that the loss to Oklahoma State will be a speedbump rather than a sign of impending collapse.