Five times during Kansas’ record-tying 13-year conference title streak, the Jayhawks have finished two or more games clear of the Big 12’s second-place team.
Don’t expect it to be nearly so easy this season.
Eighteenth-ranked Texas Tech sent an early message Tuesday night that Big 12 titles are not Kansas’ birthright and the Jayhawks will have to improve to claim first place this year. Not only did the Red Raiders win in Lawrence for the first time in program history, they led from the opening basket until the final horn en route to a convincing 85-73 victory.
A single loss isn’t reason for Kansas to panic, but it is a strong sign that this year’s Big 12 race should be far more competitive and compelling than usual. Not only is the league as deep as it has ever been this season, the Jayhawks (11-3, 1-1) are also unusually flawed.
While Kansas waits for top recruit Billy Preston to be declared eligible to play this year and midseason addition Silvio De Sousa to get up to speed, the Jayhawks only have one impact big man capable of rebounding, protecting the rim and scoring in the paint. Udoka Azubuike fought through back pain to post 11 points and seven rebounds against Texas Tech, but he was the only Kansas frontcourt player to score.
Texas Tech took advantage of Kansas’ lack of frontcourt size and depth by fearlessly attacking the rim. The Red Raiders shot over 50 percent from inside the arc, got to the foul line 25 times and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, all of which helped them prevent Kansas from getting any closer than six points the entire second half.
Also concerning for Kansas is the lack of shot creators on its roster besides senior Devonte Graham.
The Jayhawks struggle to get to the foul line and rely too heavily on the 3-point shot because nobody besides Graham has the ability to consistently initiate offense off the dribble or the court vision to set up teammates with open looks. While Graham scored 27 points and dished out six assists in Tuesday’s loss, he had little help as Svi Mykhailiuk went cold from the perimeter and neither LaGerald Vick nor Malik Newman were effective off the dribble.
Kansas turned the ball over on 28 percent of its first-half possessions, helping a tough, aggressive Texas Tech team build an 11-point halftime lead. The Jayhawks took better care of the ball in the second half, but they failed to make the Red Raiders pay for gambling for steals, misfiring on all 12 3-pointers they attempted.
Entering this season, Bill Self had only lost 10 times at Allen Fieldhouse in 14 years as Kansas coach. Self has now lost home games to Texas Tech and Arizona State this season and also dropped a game in Kansas City against unheralded Washington.
Avoiding more home losses will be crucial for Kansas because winning on the road in this year’s Big 12 will be challenging. Nine of the Big 12’s 10 teams are ranked 51st or higher in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Only Iowa State is somewhat of a pushover, and the Cyclones are still a top 100 team with a history of giving the Jayhawks fits in Ames.
UCLA is the lone team besides Kansas to ever capture 13 conference championships in a row, a run that started at the height of the John Wooden dynasty in 1967 and ended in 1979 four years after he retired. The Jayhawks would hold the record all by themselves if they win at least a share of the Big 12 title this season.
Even with Tuesday’s loss, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Big 12. The Jayhawks have earned that benefit of the doubt by dispatching all comers the past 13 years.
But with Trae Young doing his best Steph Curry impression at Oklahoma, formidable West Virginia riding a 13-game win streak and Texas Tech and TCU both on the rise, there is some unusually strong competition this season.
Now it’s up to Kansas to once again rise to that challenge.
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