Waco, Texas — Kansas University’s basketball players — the ones who chant “Big 12 champs,” at the end of every practice during the two-month conference season — today go for their ninth-straight league title.
“Extremely bad,” KU senior center Jeff Withey said, when asked by a media member “how bad” he wants yet another championship ring.
“It’s important to keep up the tradition. It’s been going on for eight years now. We don’t want to be the group that doesn’t keep it going.”
The Jayhawks and Kansas State Wildcats enter today — the final day of the regular season — on the road tied for first place at 14-3, two games ahead of Oklahoma State (12-5).
K-State, which is 24-5 overall, meets OSU (22-7) in a 12:30 p.m. contest in Stillwater, Okla. At 5 p.m., the Jayhawks (26-4) will tip it up against sixth-place Baylor (17-13, 8-9) in Ferrell Center. By game time, the Jayhawks will know if they need a victory to tie KSU or to win the league outright.
“I think anything is possible,” KU senior Kevin Young said of final-day wackiness. “They (Bears) will come out strong and we are going to come out strong as well. It’ll be a fun game.”
KU hopes to keep alive the country’s longest active streak of conference titles and longest streak in school history. Ohio State, Belmont and Murray State entered the season having won three league crowns in a row.
“A lot of people thought it was Kansas and everybody else for the league race. Those people that thought that really didn’t get it, at least from our perspective,” said KU coach Bill Self. “Our league is good and you know it is good. The Big 12 just did not have a good preseason, but teams have played better since we got into league play.”
The Jayhawks, who have won seven straight games since a three-game losing streak, face a Baylor team, which is, at best, on the NCAA bubble. The Pierre Jackson-led Bears, who advanced to the Elite Eight in both 2010 and 2012, opened conference play 5-1.
However, BU has since dropped eight of its last 11 games and has work to do to convince the NCAA Tournament committee it deserves an invitation to the Big Dance.
“Yes, I think Baylor still has a shot to get in,” Self said. His Jayhawks won the first meeting between the teams, 61-44, on Jan. 14, in Allen Fieldhouse. “I know the league’s reputation doesn’t get talked about a lot, but I’ve studied it some here of late. We want to get six teams in from our league, without question. I just don’t want them (Baylor) to get in at our expense. But they probably need to play well from this point forward.
“They’re playing at home and this (a victory over KU) would be a great feather in their cap. We know we’ll get a great effort. It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, we need to do this, (and) we need to do that,’ but when it gets down to the final deal and this has to happen, usually the focus is the best it’s been all year and I’m sure it will be for them.”
Jackson, a 5-10 senior from Las Vegas, who scored 10 points off 2-of-12 shooting with four assists and four turnovers in the first KU meeting, averages a league-leading 19.1 points and 6.5 assists a game.
“Pierre Jackson has had an unbelievable year,” Self said. “He is as talented as any guard in the country, period. The kid gets 20 (points) and seven (rebounds) every night and Isaiah Austin (7-foot freshman, 13.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg) is a lottery pick. There are a lot of teams in America that don’t have that.”
Asked how KU can slow Jackson, KU forward Young said: “I think we’ve got to pressure him, keep him on his heels, don’t let up the whole game. We’ll probably guard him with multiple players. Hopefully he doesn’t get too comfortable.”
KU coach Self actually picked Baylor to win the league in the preseason coaches’ poll in which coaches couldn’t pick their own teams.
“I think they are right there at the very top (talent wise),” Self said. “I picked them to win and OSU second and K-State third if I remember right going back.”
Baylor has lost two straight home games, to Kansas State (64-61) and Iowa State (87-82).
“It’s real frustrating because we want to win every game,” Baylor junior guard Gary Franklin told the Waco Tribune. “There are some of those we should have won and that’s pretty devastating.”
“One thing about this team is we’re not scared or going to back down,” senior guard A.J. Walton told the Tribune. “We’ll continue to work on our game plan and execution and try to make a good run.”
“We’ve got to regroup,” BU coach Scott Drew told the paper. “We knew what we had left and we put ourselves in this position. At the end of the day, the air is in the ball and as long as it’s bouncing, we’ve got a chance. So let’s just make the most of it and keep getting better.”
Austin excels: BU freshman center Austin is a 7-1, 220-pounder from Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas. KU tried to get involved in recruiting Austin, but never received a campus visit.
“He’s terrific. Everybody in the league who coaches against him feels the same way,” Self said. “He’s so long and so skilled and has touch. He can stretch the defense, play with his back to the basket. He’s a terrific prospect. We tried to recruit Isaiah like a lot of people did. He’s one of the better ‘gets’ that anybody in our league has gotten since the inception of the Big 12.
“He’s a guard that plays 6-11,” Self added. “He’s continue to mature physically and part of that is natural maturation process that everyone goes through. He’ll get bigger, stronger. He’s a force. He’ll play this game a long time.”
He could turn pro after his frosh season.
“I thought about it (the NBA draft) a little, but that’s not where my mind is right now,” Austin told the Waco Tribune. “We’re struggling in the Big 12 and hopefully we’ll make the tournament. That’s what everybody wants to do in college, play in the Big Dance and show everybody what they have. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Tourney talk: If KU is the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 Tournament, the Jayhawks would play a Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal at 2 p.m, Thursday, in Sprint Center. If KU is the No. 2 seed, it would play in a 6 p.m., quarterfinal Thursday.
Randle cuts two: Julius Randle, a 6-9 senior forward from Prestonwood Christian High in Plano, Texas, has eliminated Oklahoma and North Carolina State from his list of schools. He will choose either Kansas, Kentucky, Florida or Texas on March 20 on ESPNU.