For Kansas University’s men’s basketball players and coaches, the quest for a 10th straight Big 12 title is near, but not yet here.
A major event precedes Wednesday’s league opener at Oklahoma: Today’s nonconference showdown between the No. 16-ranked Jayhawks (9-3) and No. 21 San Diego State Aztecs (11-1).
Tip is 3:30 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse, with a live telecast on CBS.
“They are one of the better defensive teams in the country. I am not blowing smoke. They will be one of the best teams we play this year. They are really good,” KU coach Bill Self said of a team that has won 10 consecutive games since a 69-60 loss to Arizona on Nov. 14 in San Diego.
“They have experience and leadership at point guard. They have a transfer from Tulane, eligible immediately. He’s a monster, maybe the best rebounder in the country. We’ll have our hands full, but it will be a great (preparation) game going into conference,” Self added.
The experienced point guard is senior Xavier Thames, 6-foot-3, 192 pounds from Sacramento, Calif., who averages a team-leading 16.3 points with 30 assists against 22 turnovers. He had 29 points in a 67-59 win over Marquette on Dec. 1 in Anaheim.
The Tulane transfer is Josh Davis, a 6-8, 215-pound senior who grabs 11.1 boards a game to go with his 8.8 ppg mark. He had 17 rebounds in a 65-36 victory over McNeese State on Dec. 21.
“Xavier Thames is playing as well as anybody in the country right now and that rubs off,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said.
Winston Shepard, a 6-8 sophomore, averages 13.3 ppg. He went for 16 points and 10 boards in a 86-80 win over Creighton on Nov. 29 in Fullerton, Calif. Skylar Spencer, a 6-10 sophomore, has 28 blocks in his last 10 games, while J.J. O’Brien, a 6-7 junior, had 19 points against Arizona and averages 9.5 ppg.
“They are really good defensively and their numbers back it up,” Self said. The Aztecs, who like to press and play man to man defense, allow 53.3 points a game off 34.2 percent shooting. Opponents have hit 25.8 percent of their threes. KU allows 68.8 points off 41 percent shooting. Foes have hit 34.7 percent of their treys.
“They can score the ball (76.7 ppg to KU’s 79.4) but they hang their hat on stopping people. I’d be surprised if it was a game like Toledo,” Self said of a high-scoring contest like KU’s 93-83 win over the Rockets on Monday. “I do think they’ll play fast offensively. They usually make you use the clock when they are on defense just because they will not give up a lot of easy shots.”
Kansas enters a 9-point favorite, playing in the fieldhouse where the Jayhawks have won 68 consecutive nonconference games — the last loss to Oral Roberts on Nov. 15, 2006.
“Kansas gets huge runs at home and they get them against everybody. We have to manage their runs, manage it so they are not on a 16-0 run and they can do it,” Fisher said.
“Really good players and teams love to play in a building where they say, ‘Let’s see what we can do to silence the crowd.’ They enjoy that process. It’s hard to do, but really good players are able to do it. So we have to figure out how to do that on occasion.”
The Aztecs don’t figure to rattle easily.
“We have a good blend of youth and experience,” Fisher said. “We’ve played in big games before. We know what it’s like to be on national TV and play a terrific team on the road and that’s what we are playing.”
He likes KU’s talent.
“(Kansas) potentially has three players that are lottery picks in this year’s NBA draft. They’re very big, long and athletic, and more than anybody we’ve played, have a mandate to throw the ball inside,” Fisher said. “When you have that length and size, they can be hard to guard even when you defend well. They’ve outrebounded 11 out of 12 opponents.
“At one stage against Toledo, they had 12 offensive rebounds and Toledo had 11 total rebounds.”
San Diego State’s most recent game was a 71-61 victory over Colorado State on New Year’s Day in Colorado.
“I know they are real good defensively,” KU sophomore forward Perry Ellis said. “We’ll have to be real composed and really work to beat their press.”
“Coach said they are a good defensive team. They lock down,” sophomore forward Jamari Traylor said. “They are really athletic. We’ll see if we can get better defensively going into conference games.”
Big game: San Diego State’s Thames on how the Aztecs view the game compared to a Mountain West Conference game: “This is a big game going against a good Kansas team. It’s going to feel like an NCAA Tournament game. So it’s just preparing us for the NCAA (Tournament) games, so hopefully we can go out there and get a win,” Thames said.
He’s a top recruit, too: Sophomore forward Shepard on what it will be like playing against many high-profile recruits:
“I was a highly-ranked (recruit) coming out of high school as well, but at the end of the day, none of that stuff matters,” said Shepard, ranked No. 21 in the class of 2012 by Rivals.com.
“If that was the case, every top-ranked player would go to the NBA. All the hoopla from the recruiting world gets settled on the court. They’ve got to match up with us just like we have to match up with them, so we’ll see on Sunday.”
Of the hype surrounding KU’s Andrew Wiggins, Shepard said; “I think I’m a pretty good player too, so we’ll see. It’s a big game, but I try not to get caught up in one-on-one things. I think that was a mistake I made last year. So I’m just going to come out and try to play the same type of game I’ve been playing. Get my teammates involved, and when I’m open and I can attack, I’ll do that. But as far as getting caught up in a one-on-one matchup, I think that would be going down the wrong road for me.”
No bad blood: Fisher told the San Diego Union-Tribune there’s no bad blood between himself and KU coach Bill Self. KU landed recruit Kevin Young in the summer of 2011 despite the fact he’d been committed to San Diego State.
“That’s over, you know?” Fisher told the paper. “I’m a big boy. I move on. I didn’t like what happened or the way it happened, but that’s history that has no history any longer.
“If you didn’t speak to a guy where you found something happened that you didn’t like, there’d be about two people in the country you’d speak to. I like Bill. He’s a good coach and he’s a good guy,” Fisher added.
Self said: “If you are in the business long enough, things like that happen inevitably. Certainly it happened between him (Fisher) and me. That does not in the least way, shape or form affect our relationship. If it does, then obviously we didn’t care much for each other to begin with. I think he’s a first-class guy. He’s an unbelievable coach, done an unbelievable job at San Diego State.”