On its climb to the No. 1 ranking in the nation, the Kansas basketball team hasn’t played perfectly over the past several weeks. Even so, at times it seems as though Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas and company are just genetically predetermined to win.
The Jayhawks’ penchant for overcoming even the grimmest scenarios reinforces the team’s bravado. They may lack the depth and the rim protector of Bill Self teams of the past, but the more often they scrap their way out of a jam, the less such situations worry them.
Through 30 games, KU (27-3 overall, 15-2 Big 12) has fallen behind by double digits in eight games. But the Jayhawks’ interminable resolve allowed them to escape seven of those with a victory.
“You know, I don’t know if I’ve been a part of a team that’s done it this many times and has been so consistent at it,” fifth-year senior center Lucas said. “And I would really just say each time it happens it gets more and more comfortable with us. I think the first couple of times it was just because we had good experience, good leadership, want-to and toughness. And then the more we do it the more it becomes kind of, ‘All right. This is nothing new,’ and we’re very capable of doing it.”
There’s a part of Self that loves seeing his players master the art of the comeback. But KU’s tough-minded coach isn’t about to throw a party for them.
“It's good. I mean, it's good that no matter what happens, you know, the guys haven't panicked,” Self said on the subject of KU winning after trailing by double figures. “It's bad that we’ve put ourselves in a position to be behind in some of those deficits, but when you're playing in a league that is as balanced as our league, I don't think that's totally unusual.”
The coach on Thursday then guessed aloud the Big 12’s other top teams — West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa State — had most likely experienced similar ups and downs during the courses of individual games.
“You know, Iowa State, a 10-point lead at Iowa State means nothing, nor does a 10-point deficit,” Self explained. “And I think offenses have changed so much and defenses and rules and everything's changed so much, it's easy for an offensive team to get on a little bit of a roll — especially early in the game, because you play a little defensive on defense and that kind of stuff.”
In fact, ISU, Baylor and WVU have combined to win eight games in which they trailed by double digits this season (see list below).
KU DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Dec. 30 at TCU: 10 | Final: 86-80
Jan. 14 vs. Oklahoma State: 11 | Final: 87-80
Jan. 28 at Kentucky: 12 | Final: 79-73
Feb. 6 at Kansas State: 12 | Final: 74-71
Feb. 13 vs. West Virginia: 14 | Final: 84-80 (OT)
Feb. 18 at Baylor: 12 | Final: 67-65
Feb. 27 vs. Oklahoma: 12 | Final: 73-63
IOWA STATE DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Dec. 30 vs. Texas Tech: 14 | Final: 63-56
Jan. 21 at Oklahoma: 19 | Final: 92-87 (2OT)
Feb. 4 at Kansas: 15 | Final: 92-89 (OT)
BAYLOR DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Nov. 24 Battle 4 Atlantis vs. Michigan State: 10 | Final: 73-58
Nov. 25 Battle 4 Atlantis vs. Louisville: 22 | Final: 66-63
Jan. 28 at Ole Miss: 15 | Final: 78-75
WEST VIRGINIA DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Dec. 3 at Virginia: 11 | Final: 66-57
Feb. 20 vs. Texas: 10 | Final: 77-62
Ten times during Big 12 play alone Kansas has trailed by nine or more points, posting a 9-1 record. The Jayhawks’ only loss in those games came at West Virginia, when they fell behind by 19, on Jan. 24.
On the season as a whole, KU has trailed by eight or more points 12 times, with an 11-1 record.
“But we've gotta correct it,” Self said of falling behind and putting themselves in such tough spots, what with the postseason one game a way.
Lucas, as well, said he hopes the Jayhawks don’t have any more mega-recoveries in their immediate future.
“But we do understand if that is the situation in any of the games,” the senior added, “that we’re very capable.”
When No. 3 Kansas plays at No. 4 Baylor Saturday in Waco, Texas, the nation will be able to tune in (noon, CBS) and check out not only the top two teams in the Big 12, but also two potential No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, KU coach Bill Self doesn’t want those unfamiliar with the conference to get the idea the Big 12 is top-heavy. Ahead of the marquee meeting at Ferrell Center, Self shared Thursday afternoon he thinks “the strength of our league is the middle of our league.”
To his point, the five teams trailing the Big 12’s top three — KU, Baylor and West Virginia — in the standings all have a shot at making The Big Dance in March, too.
“The difference between the middle and the teams that are perceived to be at the top is not very much at all,” Self said, “as evidenced by (Baylor’s) scores and also by our scores.”
Baylor just lost at Texas Tech this week, and in February one-possession games dropped one at home against Kansas State and beat Oklahoma State, in Stillwater.
KU, as you’ll recall, only won by a single point at Texas Tech this past Saturday, clawed its way to a three-point victory at rival K-State and suffered a rare Allen Fieldhouse defeat at the hands of Iowa State during the past couple of weeks.
“I do think it’s a monster league,” Self said, “because 18 games, round-robin, and even home games, as you guys well know with us, they’re not a cinch by any stretch.”
The overall quality and depth of the Big 12 could get as many as eight teams into the NCAA Tournament in March, depending on how the next few weeks play out. As of Thursday, ESPN’s Bracketology projected seven Big 12 teams in the tourney:
Kansas: 1 seed in Midwest region
Baylor: 1 seed in South
West Virginia: 4 seed in West
Oklahoma State: 8 seed in East
Iowa State: 9 seed in West
TCU: 10 seed in East
Kansas State: 11 seed in South
Texas Tech: “Next four out,” behind “first four out”
The NCAA Tournament selection committee identified Kansas and Baylor as No. 1 seeds (as of Feb. 11), this past Saturday. Self said, in the case of this year’s Big 12 makeup, there isn’t a “bottom-heavy” factor, where teams such as Kansas and Baylor can pencil in three or four automatic victories.
Coach Socrates — oh, sorry, Coach Self, that is — said the Big 12 may be undervalued by outsiders because “the appearance of parity breeds the thought of mediocrity.” In the conference KU calls home, though, nothing comes easily this season. Just look at the average margin of victory for the top two teams in the league: Kansas (11-2 in Big 12) is at +4.1 and Baylor (9-4) at +3.9.
“But having two teams this late in the year,” Self said, “that are projected as one seeds — and even though we KNOW that that’s gonna change from week to week — I think speaks well for our league.”
BIG 12 STANDINGS — As of Feb. 16
1. Kansas, 11-2 (23-3 overall)
2. Baylor, 9-4 (22-4)
3. West Virginia, 8-5 (20-6)
4. Iowa State, 8-5 (16-9)
tie-5. Oklahoma State, 6-7 (17-9)
tie-5. TCU, 6-7 (17-9)
tie-7. Texas Tech, 5-8 (17-9)
tie-7.Kansas State, 5-8 (16-10)
9. Texas, 4-9 (10-16)
10. Oklahoma, 3-10 (9-16)
As astonishing as the Kansas basketball team’s do-or-die comeback was in the final minutes Monday night against West Virginia, the Jayhawks’ absurd rally and overtime victory helped preserve an equally staggering example of the program’s dominance.
The Mountaineers, up 14 points with less than three minutes to play in regulation, had a chance to do something no team has pulled off since Bill Self became the head coach at Kansas before the 2003-2004 season: sweep KU.
That’s right. No Self-coached Kansas team has ever suffered two regular-season losses to the same Big 12 opponent. The Jayhawks, in the 14th season of the Self era, now have played 88 home-and-home series. KU has swept 60 of them, split 28 and never come away 0-2.
As one might predict from the program’s toughness-preaching coach, Self said after KU’s 84-80 overtime win against WVU he and his players take pride in the fact that Big 12 foes just don’t sweep his teams.
“Sure we do. They probably should’ve,” Self added, of WVU ending the sweep-less streak this season. “They were better than us in Morgantown and they were better than us tonight for the most part — for the large part of the game.”
However, with the Allen Fieldhouse crowd growing more rambunctious by the second as the No. 3 Jayhawks (23-3 overall, 11-2 Big 12) chopped away at the West Virginia lead, KU preserved a less-discussed aspect of its conference dominance. What’s more, it marked the fifth occasion in Self’s tenure that KU thwarted a sweep with an overtime victory.
The last team to sweep Kansas was Iowa State, in 2001.
Below is a rundown of the Jayhawks’ avenging ways over the course of the past 14 seasons. When Big 12 opponents won the first meeting with Kansas, Self’s teams are a perfect 16-0 in rematches.
Lost at Iowa State, 68-61 | Won rematch, 90-89 (OT)
Lost at Nebraska, 74-55 | Won rematch, 78-67
Lost at home to Kansas State, 59-55 | Won rematch at K-State, 66-52
Lost at Missouri, 89-86 (OT) | Won rematch, 79-46
Lost at Kansas State, 84-75 | Won rematch, 88-74
Lost at Missouri, 62-60 | Won rematch, 90-65
Lost at Missouri, 74-71 | Won rematch, 87-86 (OT)
Lost at home to Oklahoma State, 85-80 | Won rematch at Oklahoma State, 68-67 (2OT)
Lost at TCU, 62-55 | Won rematch, 74-48
Lost at Texas, 81-69 | Won rematch, 85-54
Lost at Iowa State, 86-81 | Won rematch, 89-76
Lost at West Virginia, 62-61 | Won rematch, 76-69 (OT)
Lost at West Virginia, 74-63 | Won rematch, 75-65
Lost at Oklahoma State, 86-67 | Won rematch, 94-67
Lost at Iowa State, 85-72 | Won rematch, 85-78
Lost at West Virginia, 85-69 | Won rematch, 84-80 (OT)
In the old days of the Big 12, when Kansas only played the teams from the south division once in the regular season, the Jayhawks didn’t even encounter any potential sweeps in 2005, 2007, 2010 or 2011. Still, in both 2008 and 2011, KU earned retribution for losses to Texas in the Big 12 Tournament.
Since the round-robin, 18-game schedule went into effect in 2012, KU has overcome a potential 0-2 mark against a league team at least once every season.
The Jayhawks’ latest star freshman, Josh Jackson, obviously has only been around for a few weeks worth of Big 12 battles. But the culture Self long ago established was apparent to Jackson and his teammates on Big Monday, with a West Virginia sweep in play.
“Sometimes it’s not our night, like tonight I don’t really think it was,” Jackson said after chipping in 14 points, 11 rebounds, five steals and three assists. “But you’ve just gotta get it done on the defensive end. As long as we make our opponents play bad, I think we’ll be fine.”
Now 408-86 as KU’s head coach, Self’s teams thrive on pulling off the preposterous, particularly at Allen Fieldhouse, where he improved to 218-10. On the rare occasions when an opponent looks like it has KU’s number, that’s when Self can employ atypical tactics.
“I didn’t talk once about the league race. I didn’t talk about any of that stuff,” Self said of his message leading up to the West Virginia rematch. “All I told ’em was, ‘You’ve got a chance to play a team that put a pretty good knot on your head the last time we played.’ And they were motivated. I think they just tried too hard early on in the game.”
— Addendum: On the subject of losing twice to the same team in a season, it has happened in the Self era — just not in terms of a regular-season sweep. Below are the teams who pulled off multiple victories over Self teams during one campaign, over the past 14 years.
Lost at Texas 82-67 | Lost Big 12 Tournament rematch, 64-60, in Dallas
Lost at Michigan State, 75-62 | Lost Sweet 16 rematch, 67-62, in Indianapolis
Lost to Kentucky, 75-65, in New York | Lost NCAA title game rematch, 67-59, in New Orleans
Iowa State, after splitting in the regular season, won Round 3, 70-66, in Big 12 title game, in Kansas City
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self and veteran Jayhawks such as Frank Mason III, who have been through more conference encounters than they can count off the top of their heads, will tell you there is nothing easy about winning the Big 12 — even if the Jayhawks have done so 12 years in a row.
The first couple of stops on what many imagined would be an uneventful journey to KU’s 13th consecutive league crown, though, back up the case made by those responsible for the conference dominance some observers have taken as a foregone conclusion.
The No. 3-ranked Jayhawks couldn’t ever completely bury TCU on the road in their Big 12 opener, and it took a controversial buzzer-beater at the end of regulation for them to defeat rival Kansas State inside Allen Fieldhouse.
Victories, of course, often are considered more important than the minutia that made them possible. But Self said opening league play with back-to-back taxing outings should give his players something to think about as they prepare for a Saturday home game against Texas Tech (12-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) and the next couple of months in front of them.
“But I think there’s been a lot of nice reminders for our guys on just how hard it is to win,” the 14th-year KU coach said, “and especially in a league where — I mean, this is no disrespect to anybody — but I think most, in fans’ minds, think if you go to TCU, based on the past few years, that that should be a game that you should for sure win. And as coaches, we know that we're gonna have to play to win, because they’re so much improved.”
This week, the Big 12 has three teams — No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 KU and No. 7 West Virginia — ranked among the top seven in the country in the AP poll. Even the unranked teams have generated some buzz just two games into the conference schedule. The Red Raiders knocked off WVU on Tuesday, in Lubbock, Texas, on the same night K-State had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds at Kansas. The next day, Iowa State lost by two at Baylor. Eight of the league’s 10 teams have at least one Big 12 victory already, and only Kansas and Baylor enter the weekend without a conference loss.
KenPom.com ranks the Big 12’s eight best teams among the top 40 in the country: No. 2 WVU, No. 6 BU, No. 7 KU, No. 27 ISU, No. 28 Tech, No. 30 K-State, No. 38 TCU and No. 39 Oklahoma State. And even the Cowboys lost at No. 79 Texas, which has struggled to a 7-7 start in Shaka Smart’s second season.
“Well, I think there's no question that our league is underrated,” Self said, “and it's rated very high, and it's still underrated. I think you could say, you could make a strong case, that the ACC has more good teams in their league than anybody else. But that's also in large part the numbers are so much bigger. They've got five more teams … to pick from.
“But I think our league is a monster,” Self continued. “And you know, coaches after games sometimes can be emotional and mad or happy, and there's been a time or two I've been that way, as well. But the TCU win was a good win. They're gonna beat a lot of people at TCU.”
An even stronger argument along those lines could be made for K-State (12-2, 1-1), and Self said the Jayhawks (13-1, 2-0) don’t have to apologize for eking out a win against the Wildcats — even if KU avoided overtime because the officials didn’t whistle Svi Mykhailiuk for traveling.
“Although I didn't think we played well, I think Kansas State's a really good team. I think they did some things that didn't allow us to play well,” Self explained. “So I think winning at home is going to be a premium again. But I don't think the home wins are gonna come as easy as a lot of people perceive them to be as they have in year's past, because there’s just more good teams in our league.”
To his point, the latest NCAA Tournament projections from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi place six Big 12 teams in the field: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and TCU. Plus, Lunardi lists Texas Tech among the “first four out” and K-State in the “next four out” — so eight league teams, at least in early January, are in the mix for March Madness.
Mason, KU’s senior point guard who is averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 assists in Big 12 action, said there are easy lessons to take away from his team’s two narrow conference wins.
“Even when we’re not playing good we still have to rebound the ball and make the other team play as bad as we are,” Mason began. “You know, we have to stay coachable, keep ptichin' the ball ahead, execute on the offensive end. And we have to make free throws, and just make the right play, make the extra pass.”
Quickly this season, the Jayhawks have been reminded it’s not easy to win in the Big 12. Their coach, as one might expect, plans on hammering that message home, and letting the players know there are no certainties in league play.
“And I think that's the one thing that we really need to sell to all our players, and I think that other coaches will sell to their respective players is that, hey, everybody's better than they were last year — for the most part,” Self said. “Everybody's better. So don't look at an opponent based on what happened last year. Everybody's improved. Everybody's added some nice pieces.”
Perhaps it is far too early to claim Player A will beat out Player B and Player C for some college basketball award that will be handed out 10 months from now. Maybe we should save such discussions for weeks before the season starts, instead of months.
Whatever your take on that front, it is at least noteworthy that those debates already are taking place in some circles, and a Kansas veteran might be in line for some major hardware by the end of the 2016-17 season.
While looking ahead to next year in the Big 12, NBC Sports predicts not only a 13th consecutive regular-season championship for Bill Self’s Jayhawks, but also a Player of the Year honor for senior-to-be Frank Mason III.
It’s not too farfetched of a conclusion when you consider all the talent the Big 12 has lost from this past season.
All five members of the 2016 All-Big 12 first team won’t be around next year, thanks to Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor unexpectedly entering the NBA Draft, joining Buddy Hield, Georges Niang, Perry Ellis and Taurean Prince as professionals.
Only Iowa State point guard Monté Morris and Mason return from the All-Big 12 second team, with Wayne Selden Jr. and Devin Williams turning pro, and Jaysean Paige done with his college career.
Even the all-conference third team featured three players who won’t be back next season: seniors Rico Gathers, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. Baylor’s Johnathan Motley and Wesley Iwundu of Kansas State will have a crack at making bigger names for themselves and contending for a first-team spot in 2017, or perhaps even challenging the Big 12’s other top talents for the honor of Player of the Year.
So if Mason is one of the top contenders for the coveted award next season, who else might push him or surpass him in the race?
You have to start with Morris. The Cyclones, like the rest of the mostly rebuilding Big 12, honestly, don’t seem likely to threaten KU for a league championship. However, if ISU can finish in the top three or four and Morris puts up big numbers — and he’ll have a chance to lead Iowa State in scoring while still distributing as much as ever — the Cyclones’ lead guard could turn out to be the favorite.
Athletic Baylor big man Motley could become one of the league’s breakout stars next season, now that Prince and Gathers won’t be part of the Bears’ frontcourt.
Looking at other younger players in the conference poised for a leap in productivity, one would think West Virginia’s Jevon Carter will become Bob Huggins’ featured guard next season, and the Mountaineers seem to remain competitive in the Big 12 regardless of who Huggins puts on the floor.
With all the upperclassmen Shaka Smart is losing at Texas, a blossoming player will have to carry the load. Here’s a vote for Kerwin Roach Jr. emerging as a havoc-inflicting guard. The Longhorns might be a year or two away from really challenging KU for a Big 12 title, but next season Texas will start looking more like a Smart VCU team and less like a Rick Barnes team.
Implausible as it sounds, Oklahoma State, which finished ninth in the Big 12 in Travis Ford’s final season as head coach, might have a pair of dark horse candidates for player of the year. If either veteran Phil Forte III (who only played 3 games last season after suffering a ligament tear in an elbow) or young dynamo Jawun Evans put up eye-popping enough numbers and new coach Brad Underwood gets the Cowboys back into the top half of the league, don’t count out one of these explosive guards.
If you think about it, though, Mason’s toughest challenger in the race for Big 12 Player of the Year just might be in his own locker room. Should the Jayhawks roll through the conference as expected it would be hard to make a case for a player from another school winning. But it isn’t too difficult to see Devonté Graham becoming just as legitimate a candidate as Mason for the league’s top individual honor.
Plus, can we really count incoming KU freshman Josh Jackson out of this conversation? Probably not at this point. Should Jackson indeed come in and essentially play as much as Selden did this year on the wing, while at least matching the freshman-year production of Andrew Wiggins, Jackson would deserve some consideration, too.
If Self has the team dominating all season, the discussion might not be if a KU player will win Big 12 Player of the Year. The better question could be: which one?
It’s difficult enough to win three college basketball games in three days. Beating three different Big 12 teams in three days? Now that’s a superb accomplishment — even if you’re the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
The Jayhawks (27-4) are in Kansas City, Mo., this week trying to add to their already striking résumé by winning the 2016 Big 12 Tournament. They last left Sprint Center as tourney champions in 2013. Each of the past two seasons, Iowa State took home the title, defeating KU in the 2014 semifinals and 2015 championship game.
Even with those losses, 13th-year Kansas coach Bill Self has a 24-6 record in Big 12 Tournament games. When the conference postseason wars are played at Sprint Center, Self’s record is even better: 16-3.
Self, who has led Kansas to 6 postseason Big 12 championships, knows nothing about this weekend will be easy for the Jayhawks, even if they won the regular-season title by two games and haven’t lost since Jan. 25, at Iowa State.
“I think it's got to be — and I've heard other people say it — it's got to be as good a postseason conference tournament as there is in the country,” Self said earlier this week. “I think the competitive nature of it, everybody wants to show that they are the best. I think that drives it.”
With all of that in mind, here are five potential obstacles the Jayhawks might have to overcome in the days ahead in order to extend their 11-game winning streak to 14 and add another trophy to the program’s many cases.
More poor free-throw shooting
Entering the postseason, the Jayhawks haven’t been great at the free-throw line. They’re hitting 70% on the year — which ranks 6th in the Big 12 and 163rd in the nation.
Even more troubling, Kansas has shot below 70% in four of its last five games:
- 18 of 30 at Kansas State: 60%
- 12 of 17 at Baylor: 70.6%
- 10 of 15 vs. Texas Tech: 66.7%
- 11 of 24 at Texas: 45.8%
- 9 of 15 vs. Iowa State: 60%
Now that it’s the postseason, Self said missing free throws could be disastrous.
“But we've got to make them. You know what, we've been a good free-throw shooting team when it counted,” Self said. “We haven't been a very good free-throw shooting it seems like to me when it didn't count, so maybe that's a positive sign. But certainly that could bite us. You don't make free throws in the postseason, the chances of you advancing against a comparable team is not very good.”
So who are KU’s best free-throw shooters when it count? Here are the individual numbers for free throws taken in the last 5 minutes of a game or overtime (as a team, KU shoots 70.3% in those situations, and opponents have made 74.1%):
Brannen Greene: 9/11, 90%
Devonté Graham: 20/24, 83.3%
Perry Ellis: 14/17, 82.4%
Frank Mason III: 40/54, 74.1%
Svi Mykhailiuk: 5/7, 71.4%
Cheick Diallo: 7/10, 70%
Landen Lucas: 11/18, 61.1%
Wayne Selden Jr.: 15/25, 60%
Jamari Traylor: 3/6, 50%
Hunter Mickelson: 1/3, 33.3%
Carlton Bragg: 0/0
In each of KU’s 4 losses this season, the opposition had a better shooting night at the free-throw line.
Opponents pounding the offensive glass
The Jayhawks have finished with fewer offensive rebounds than their opponent in 6 of their last 10 games. During that same stretch KU got out-scored in second-chance points five times and won the margin by 1 on 2 occasions.
In 9 of KU’s 18 Big 12 games, they lost second-chance points. Sometimes, KU’s first-shot defense leads to those opportunities (see: Texas missed 44 field goals, shot 30.2% and gathered 18 offensive rebounds, leading to 13 second-chance points). But it’s still an area of concern, because second-chance attempts often come from point-blank range, meaning easy points.
In Norman, Okla., the Sooners scored 22 second-chance points on 15 offensive rebounds. Looking at KU’s last five games, four opponents scored double digits via offensive rebounds: K-State (12), Baylor (14), Texas Tech (14) and Iowa State (13).
Beware of Shaka
Now, there is no guarantee that Kansas will run into Texas in the Big 12 semifinals. Obviously, both KU (versus K-State) and UT (versus Baylor) will have to handle their business to make that happen. But the past success of first-year Longhorns coach Shaka Smart makes one think a UT-KU meeting will start things off Friday night at Sprint. And that Self’s Jayhawks shouldn’t take the ’Horns lightly — despite a regular-season sweep.
In his six seasons at VCU, Smart’s Rams won two conference tournament titles (Colonial Athletic Association Tournament in 2012, and Atlantic-10 Tournament in 2015) and posted a 15-4 record.
What’s more, VCU won at least two games at every conference tournament in Smart’s time there.
2010 (CAA) 2-1
2011 (CAA) 2-1
2012 (CAA) 3-0
2013 (A-10) 2-1
2014 (A-10) 2-1
2015 (A-10) 4-0
Smart has a way of getting the best out of his players in March. And there is a chance massive, 6-foot-10 center Cameron Ridley will be back for the Longhorns this weekend.
Sure, KU blew out Texas a little more than a week ago. But they call it March Madness for a reason. Sometimes the unthinkable plays out right in front of your eyes.
An off night for Devonté Graham
The youngest member of KU’s starting five, sophomore Devonté Graham has emerged as a reliable scorer (11.2 points per game, 45.9% shooting) and the Jayhawks’ best high-volume 3-point marksman.
The 6-foot-2 guard from Raleigh, N.C., has made 43.7% of his 135 attempts from beyond the arc (second to Wayne Selden Jr.’s 156 tries). While Perry Elis (45.6% on 57 attempts) and Brannen Greene (51.7% on 58 shots from downtown) are better percentage-wise, Graham has been more productive.
KU has enough depth and talent that an off night from one player shouldn’t mean doom for the team, but Graham has been below his normal production in the Jayhawks’ four losses this season.
- vs. Michigan State: 4 points, 1/9 FGs, 0/4 3s, 2/2 FTs
- at West Virginia: 7 points, 2/7 FGs, 2/3 3s, 1/4 FTs
- at Oklahoma State: 10 points, 4/9 FGs, 1/4 3s, 1/1 FTs
- at Iowa State: 7 points, 3/7 FGs, 1/3 3s, 0/0 FTs
A below-average outing from Graham doesn’t automatically mean a KU loss. He had three single-digit point totals in February, and Kansas still won every game last month.
It’s just Graham seems to have an infectious energy that propels Kansas when he is playing well. If he goes cold in a game and other problems pop up for KU, that could mean trouble.
Can KU respond to adversity?
KU has been on such a roll, what happens if an opponent gets hot and the Jayhawks find themselves down by double digits?
That hasn’t happened to Kansas since Jan. 25, at Iowa State. That’s a long time to go without playing from behind while in legitimate trouble.
Will the players buckle down and get stops? Will pride take over and validate just how good KU is?
Or will the physical and mental grind of the regular season finally catch up with the players in such a scenario? In the back of their minds, they know a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament already is essentially wrapped up. Will they have the fire to exert extra energy with a big comeback if it doing so doesn’t have an impact on where they stand entering the Big Dance? Maybe we find out. Maybe we don’t.
For what it’s worth, KU has a pair of neutral-floor recoveries on its schedule this season. Kansas came back from a 14-point deficit to beat Oregon State at Sprint Center in December. Before that, the Jayhawks recovered from a 10-point hole against Vanderbilt to win the Maui Invitational final.
There aren’t many college basketball players that can say they have won four of the past five times they have faced Kansas. In fact, the only ones who can say that about a Bill Self-coached KU team are Iowa State’s current crop of veterans.
With a pair of Big 12 Tournament victories and two more wins coming at Hilton Coliseum, the Cyclones have proven they have the fire power to not only hang with the Jayhawks, but knock them off. Winning at Allen Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon — on Perry Ellis’ Senior Day? That would be a next-level accomplishment. Iowa State has lost its last 10 trips to Lawrence.
When the 2015-16 schedule came out, this KU-ISU matchup seemed like one that could decide the Big 12 championship. However, KU already wrapped up its 12th straight title and ISU has experienced more drop-off than expected following the departure of former coach Fred Hoiberg.
No. 21 Iowa State (21-9 overall, 10-7 Big 12) and first-year ISU coach Steve Prohm still have plenty to play for. Heading into Saturday, ISU could earn anywhere from a No. 3 seed to a No. 6 seed at the upcoming Big 12 Tournament, in Kansas City, Mo.
And there is the less obvious incentive of ISU trying to become the first Big 12 team to beat a Self-coached KU team both at home and on the road in the same season. While that’s probably not something floating around in the minds of Georges Niang and Monté Morris, just getting a win at Allen Fieldhouse is motivation enough.
So how could the Cyclones pull off the upset at No. 1 KU (26-4, 14-3)? They’d better score a ton of points if they want to have a shot.
ISU (82.2 points per game this season, 1st in Big 12) has led the league in scoring each of the last three years. If the Cyclones can do that again they would join Kansas (2000-03) as the only teams to lead the Big 12 four consecutive seasons.
Some other interesting Iowa State offensive numbers to consider:
- In the 2nd halves of the last 8 games ISU is shooting 57.8% from the floor and 42.3% on 3-pointers.
- In 4 of those last 8 games ISU has shot 64% of better in the 2nd half.
- The Cyclones have made 10 or more 3-pointers in 6 of the last 9 games.
- ISU is shooting 57.1% on 2-point field goals, which ranks 4th nationally.
- Iowa State has made 50.3% of its shots on the year, ranking 2nd in the nation to St. Mary’s, which has hit 50.9%. (KU ranks 8th at 49.3%).
Defense has been ISU’s issue all season, particularly with the absence of injured Naz Long. The Cyclones are 3-8 when their opponent gets 80 or more points. They also rank last in Big 12 games in points allowed (76.9) and 6th in FG% defense (44.2%). KU leads the conference, holding Big 12 foes to 38.7% shooting.
While ISU ranks 2nd in the nation — behind only Michigan State — in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to college hoops math wizard Ken Pomeroy, of kenpom.com, the Cyclones are 111th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Iowa State certainly will extend its run of NCAA Tournament appearances to five straight years, improving on its current program record. But the Cyclones’ defensive issues might be too much to overcome against a hot Kansas team that can match them basket for basket.
With all of those factors in mind, here are the Cyclones the Jayhawks have to worry about as they try to close out the regular season with an 11th straight win.
IOWA STATE STARTERS
No. 31 — F Georges Niang | 6-8, sr.
— Jan. 25 vs. KU: 19 points, 8/17 FGs, 0/5 3s, 3/3 FTs, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 turnovers in 33 minutes
One of the nation’s better all-around offensive threats, senior Georges Niang (19.3 points) is the only player in the country averaging at least 19 points and 6 rebounds, while shooting 50% or better from the floor and 80% or better at the free-throw line. The last player to pull that off was Creighton’s Doug McDermott (2013-14).
The winningest player in ISU history (96 wins), Niang doesn’t just score, he sets up his teammates for baskets, averaging 3.2 assists in his final season. He’s the only player to rank in the top 12 in the Big 12 in scoring, rebounding and assists.
In Big 12 games, Niang is shooting 55% from the floor and 35.8% from three-point range (24 of 67).
Niang is one of six players in the nation hitting at least 60% of his 2-point shot attempts.
In his last 4 games, Niang is shooting 66% from the field.
No. 11 — PG Monté Morris | 6-3, jr.
— Jan. 25 vs. KU: 21 points, 7/14 FGs, 2/4 3s, 5/7 FTs, 4 rebounds (2 offensive), 9 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 steal in 40 minutes
A finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, junior point guard Monté Morris (14.3 points) leads the Big 12 in assists (7.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1).
Morris is on pace to pass Jeff Hornacek (6.8 assists) as the program’s all-time single-season assist leader.
The Big 12’s active leader in career assists (525), Morris also has more career steals (163) than any other current players in the league.
Morris has looked to score more frequently this season than he did in the past and his 50.4% shooting from the field leads all Big 12 guards.
In Big 12 games, Morris has made 22 of 51 from 3-point range (43.1%).
A workhorse, Morris has played every minute in 9 games this season.
4th in the Big 12 with 1.8 steals a game, he has recorded at least 1 steal in 26 of 30 games this year.
No. 1 — F Jameel McKay | 6-9, sr.
— Jan. 25 vs. KU: 6 points, 2/4 FGs, 2/2 FTs, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block in 27 minutes
Senior big man Jameel McKay (11.5 points) gives Iowa State an athletic presence in the paint and above the rim. McKay leads the team with 8.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.
In his last 6 games, McKay, hampered by some soreness in the first meeting with KU, is averaging 2.3 blocks.
Starting to return to form, McKay put up 14 points and 17 boards against Kansas State last week, marking his first double-double since the first week of January.
McKay has shot 50% or better from the field in 41 of his 52 career games for ISU. This season, McKay is shooting 58.9%. In Big 12 games, that mark is 54.3%.
ISU went 4-3 without McKay in the starting lineup this season.
Averaging 2.9 offensive rebounds a game in Big 12 action.
No. 2 — F Abdel Nader | 6-6, sr.
— Jan. 25 vs. KU: 17 points, 6/9 FGs, 3/3 3s, 2/2 FTs, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover, 4 steals in 36 minutes
As he closes in on the end of his college career, senior Abdel Nader (13.5 points, 5.1 rebounds) is getting hot at the right time. Nader is averaging 19.2 points in the last 5 games.
In his 5-game run, Nader has made 47.4% of his 3-pointers, hitting 18 total — including 3 games with 5 successful bombs.
In his first 25 games of the season, Nader made 26 total 3’s and shot 31.3% from deep.
Shooting 48.5% from the floor in Big 12 games.
Only dud in his last 5 games was a 4-point performance vs. K-State, when Nader shot 0-for-6 from 3-point range. He scored between 19 and 26 points in the other 4, against Baylor, TCU, West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
No. 21 — G Matt Thomas | 6-4, jr.
— Jan. 25 vs. KU: 13 points, 5/10 FGs, 3/6 3s, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 4 steals in 37 minutes
Odds are junior sharpshooter Matt Thomas (10.7 points, 4.5 rebounds) is going to make at least one 3-pointer. He has done so in 20 consecutive games.
With 2.5 3-pointers made per game this year, Thomas ranks (distant) 2nd to Buddy Hield, of Oklahoma, who makes 4.2 a game.
Shooting 43.2% from long range on the year, Thomas’ productivity coincides with ISU success. The Cyclones are 11-1 when he scores at least 12 points as a starter.
Thomas has nailed 3 or more 3-pointers in 9 of the last 13 games.
Also ISU’s best free-throw shooter, Thomas has made 30 of 33 at the line this season (90.9%).
IOWA STATE BENCH
No. 30 — G Deonte Burton | 6-4, jr.
— Jan. 25 vs. KU: 9 points, 4/5 FGs, 1/1 3s, 0/1 FTs, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 4 fouls in 17 minutes off the bench
A transfer from Marquette (just like McKay), junior Deonte Burton (10.0 points, 3.9 rebounds) is ISU’s 6th man and the real productivity off the bench begins and ends with him.
Burton doesn’t take as many 3-pointers as Niang, Morris, Nader or Thomas, but he has connected on 10 of 23 (43.5%) in Big 12 games.
Shooting 52.8% from the field in conference games — good. And 59.5% at the free-throw line — bad.
The longer the streak extends the more the question gets asked: Which season in the Kansas Jayhawks’ run of consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships was the most difficult or most impressive?
It’s a great debate for those that follow the now 12-time defending kings of the conference. And every year about this time, with the regular season almost over, the man who coached each of those title teams is asked to compare, contrast and find some way to encapsulate the various challenges that come up year after year.
Just last week, KU coach Bill Self said of this season’s competition: “I think there's more really, really good teams in our league than there ever has been.”
That might turn out to be true. The latest Bracketology projections indicate the Big 12 could easily end up sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Think about that. No. 1-ranked KU (26-4 overall, 14-3 Big 12) already has won the conference outright and has a 2-game lead in the loss column on second-place West Virginia — in a conference where the best teams play 12 games against tourney-worthy competition. The Mountaineers still have a home game with Texas Tech and a road date with Baylor left to play this week. Let’s say WVU splits those. As long as Kansas defends its home court Saturday against Iowa State, the Jayhawks would win the Big 12 by 3 games.
The 2016 season really might go down as the most impressive in the run, depending on what transpires in the future.
There are plenty of factors that go into such a debate, but for the purposes of this exercise, here is a glance at how Kansas has performed year-by-year during its title streak, with the Jayhawks’ final Big 12 record, a look at the top of the standings, how Kansas performed against the top contender(s) and how many Big 12 teams went dancing.
When you put those factors together, 2010 is pretty remarkable, even if that pre-dated the round robin format now in place.
Immerse yourself in the data and decide for yourself: Which of the Jayhawks’ championship seasons stands out as the best?
— We'll add the final numbers for 2016 when the season wraps up this weekend.
2005 — KU 12-4 in 12-team league
Co-champions with Oklahoma
Lost only regular-season meeting with OU, 71-63, in Norman, Okla.
Six NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2006 — KU 13-3 in 12-team league
Co-champions with Texas
Lost only regular-season meeting with UT, 80-55, in Austin, Texas
Four NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2007 — KU 14-2 in 12-team league
Finished 1 game ahead of runner-up Texas A&M
Lost only regular-season meeting with A&M, 69-66, at Allen Fieldhouse
Four NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2008 — KU 13-3 in 12-team league
Co-champions with Texas
Lost only regular-season meeting with UT, 72-69, in Austin, Texas
Six NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2009 — KU 14-2 in 12-team league
Finished 1 game ahead of runner-up Oklahoma
Won only regular-season meeting with OU, 87-78, in Norman, Okla.
Six NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2010 — KU 15-1 in 12-team league
Finished 4 games ahead of second-place teams Kansas State, Baylor and Texas A&M
Swept K-State — 81-79 (OT) in Manhattan, 82-65 at Allen Fieldhouse
Won only regular-season meeting with BU, 81-75, at Allen Fieldhouse
Won only regular-season meting with A&M, 59-54, in College Station, Texas
Seven NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2011 — KU 14-2 in 12-team league
Finished 1 game ahead of runner-up Texas
Lost only regular-season meeting with UT, 74-63, at Allen Fieldhouse
Five NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2012 — KU 16-2 in 10-team league
Finished 2 games ahead of runner-up Missouri
Split regular-season meetings with Mizzou — lost, 74-71, in Columbia, Mo.; won, 87-86 (OT), at Allen Fieldhouse
Six NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2013 — KU 14-4 in 10-team league
Co-champions with Kansas State
Swept regular-season meetings with K-State — 59-55 in Manhattan, 83-62 at Allen Fieldhouse
Five NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2014 — KU 14-4 in 10-team league
Finished 2 games ahead of runner-up Oklahoma
Swept regular-season meetings with OU — 90-83 in Norman, Okla., 83-75 at Allen Fieldhouse
Seven NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2015 — KU 13-5 in 10-team league
Finished 1 game ahead of runners-up Iowa State and Oklahoma
Split regular-season meetings with ISU — lost, 86-81, in Ames, Iowa; won, 89-76, at Allen Fieldhouse
Split regular-season meetings with OU — won, 85-78, at Allen Fieldhouse; lost, 75-73, in Norman, Okla.
Seven NCAA Tournament teams in Big 12
2016 — KU 13-5 in 10-team league
Finished 2 games ahead of runner-up West Virginia
Split regular-season meetings with WVU — lost, 74-63, in Morgantown, W. Va.; won, 75-65, at Allen Fieldhouse
Likely seven NCAA Tournament teams
Congratulations, Kansas. You just wrapped up at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title (again). You’re about to be ranked No. 1 in the nation (again). Now get on down to Austin, Texas, on a two-day turnaround to face Shaka Smart’s Longhorns, who already have home victories over North Carolina, Iowa State, Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Oklahoma this season.
Such is life in the Big 12.
Texas (19-10 overall, 10-6) also comes into the Big Monday finale with little rest, but the ’Horns didn’t have any traveling to do after beating Oklahoma at Frank Erwin Center, eliminating their rivals from league title contention.
Smart’s teams get after it defensively, as the Longhorns showed at Allen Fieldhouse last month, when they blocked 8 shots and held KU to 40% shooting.
In Big 12 games, UT leads the league in fewest points allowed (68.2) and 3-point FG% defense (33%). So of course, Texas’ defense carried it against the Sooners on Saturday. The Longhorns went on a massive 22-0 run in the second half, holding OU to 0-for-9 shooting in that stretch — including 0-for-4 for Buddy Heild. Texas out-rebounded Oklahoma by 12 in the win and limited OU to 29% shooting in the second half.
That marquee victory could be topped against KU (25-4, 13-3) on Senior Night for such Longhorns as Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Prince Ibeh, Connor Lammert and Cameron Ridley (out, fractured left foot). If Smart can get another inspired defensive showing from his team and keep the Jayhawks constrained, Texas will have a shot at pulling off the first victory over a No. 1-ranked team in program history. The ’Horns already own a 3-0 mark at home against top-10 teams this season.
Kansas, meanwhile, has an outright Big 12 championship at stake. Win this game and West Virginia is out of the picture.
With all of those factors in mind, here are the Longhorns the Jayhawks will have to go through to extend their winning streak to 10 games.
No. 1 — PG Isaiah Taylor | 6-3, jr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 13 points, 6/11 FGs, 0/1 3s, 1/2 FTs, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal in 37 minutes
UT’s third-year starting point guard, junior Isaiah Taylor leads the team in scoring (15.5 points), assists (5.0), free-throw% (81%), steals (27) and minutes (30.8 mpg).
In league games, Taylor has 84 assists to 25 turnovers (3.4 ratio).
Put together a pretty impressive day vs. OU: 18 points, 5 assists and 0 turnovers.
For all his quickness and ball-handling ability, Taylor hasn’t been a guard who can stretch the floor for UT. He has just 14 successful 3-pointers on 54 tries this season (25.9%). In 16 conference games, Taylor is 8 of 33 (24.2%) from downtown.
No. 3 — G Javan Felix | 5-11, sr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 12 points, 5/12 FGs, 0/2 3s, 2/2 FTs, 1 rebound, 6 assists, 1 turnover, 2 steals in 30 minutes
Neck-and-neck with fellow senior Connor Lammert for title of UT’s best 3-point shooter this season, Javan Felix (11.1 points) has made 43 of 119 (36.1%) of his long-range jumpers…
… However, Felix has gone cold from deep in conference action, connecting on just 17 of his 65 3-point attempts (26.2%). He hasn’t made more than 1 3-pointer in a game in his past 6 outings (3-for-17, 17.6%).
In UT’s 11 games against top-25 competition this year, Felix has averaged 12.2 points and made 27 of 30 free throws.
Much like Taylor, Felix takes care of the basketball. With 65 assists and 32 turnovers on the season, he has a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Scored 14 points against Oklahoma in UT’s big win, but had his worst ball-handling game of the season, with 5 turnovers and just 1 assist.
No. 44 — C Prince Ibeh | 6-11, sr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 7 points, 3/4 FGs, 1/3 FTs, 7 rebounds (3 offensive) 3 turnovers, 7 blocks, 1 steal, 4 fouls in 35 minutes
An athletic big man capable of wreaking havoc on defense, senior Prince Ibeh (4.1 points) might be salivating at the thought of a KU rematch after he swatted away a career-high 7 shots at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this season. That was the most blocked shots for a KU opponent since Anthony Davis rejected 7 against the Jayhawks in Nov., 2011.
In UT’s last 10 games (7-3), Ibeh is averaging 7.1 points, 6.2 boards and 2.2 blocks in 21.4 minutes. In that span, Ibeh is shooting 62.8% from the floor.
Ibeh blocked 6 shots in just 16 minutes in UT’s home win over WVU earlier this month.
Making 67.9% of his shot attempts in Big 12 play, Ibeh at times is unstoppable in the paint. However, he can and should be fouled when he gets touches down low. Ibeh has made just 14 of 41 free throws (34.1%) against league foes.
Went and got 8 offensive rebounds (11 total) and scored 13 points in a victory over Vanderbilt.
No. 21 — F Connor Lammert | 6-10, sr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 15 points, 5/7 FGs, 5/7 3s, 4 rebounds, 1 turnover, fouled out in 30 minutes
Although Ibeh is more intimidating, senior big man Connor Lammert (6.9 points, team-leading 5.4 rebounds) actually brings more consistent offensive production.
Lammert scored 14 points, burned OU for 4-for-7 shooting from 3-point distance and swiped 2 steals on Saturday.
Like Ibeh, Lammert had a career game in UT’s first meeting with Kansas this season: 15 points and 5 3-pointers.
As mentioned earlier, Lammert has been one of UT’s best shooters this season, making 44 of 122 3-pointers (36.1%). But he also has maintained that in Big 12 play, unlike Felix. Lamert has hit a team-best 29 3’s against conference opponents on 76 attempts (38.2%).
No. 2 — G Demarcus Holland | 6-3, sr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 0 points, in 4 minutes off the bench
More of a team leader than stat producer, senior Demarcus Holland (2.6 points) has 88 career starts, tops on the roster.
Has started 3 times in Big 12 contests while logging just 9.9 minutes in 15 games, averaging 1.7 points and making only 32% of his shots.
Has gone scoreless in 3 straight games and 5 of the past 6.
Shooting 3-for-11 on 3-pointers in Big 12 games.
No. 10 — G Eric Davis Jr. | 6-2, fr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 13 points, 6/11 FGs, 1/2 3s, 5 rebounds (2 offensive), 1 steal in 21 minutes
Freshman Eric Davis (7.9 points) likes the spotlight. In 11 games vs. top-25 teams, the young guard averages 9.6 points and has hit 20 of 38 from beyond the 3-point arc (52.6%).
Starting to produce more consistently, Davis scored 10 points vs. Oklahoma, marking his fourth consecutive double-digit scoring game. During that run, he is averaging 11.5 points in 24.0 minutes, with 9 successful 3-pointers on 16 attempts (56.3%).
Hitting 35.8% of his 3-pointers in league games: 19 of 53.
No. 0 — G/F Tevin Mack | 6-6, fr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 0 points, 0/3 FGs, 0/3 3s, 1 turnover, 1 block in 10 minutes
Freshman backup Tevin Mack only plays 14.1 minutes but averages 5.5 points.
In his most impressive Big 12 outing to date, Mack hit 5 of his 12 3-pointers, scored 18 points and secured 5 rebounds in a loss at Iowa State.
That 3-point performance at ISU was a tad uncharacteristic. In the rest of his 15 league games combined, Mack has made 13 of 48 from long range (27%).
Has gone scoreless in back-to-back games, shooting 0-for-7 from the field in combined 21 minutes.
No. 5 — G Kendal Yancy | 6-3, jr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 0 points, 0/1 FGs, 0/1 3s, 3 rebounds, 1 assist in 12 minutes as a starter
Veteran backup Kendal Yancy (3.3 points) doesn’t take a lot of shots, but he has made 46.8% of his attempts in Big 12 games (22 of 47).
The same holds true for Yancy 3-pointers: 9 of 19 (47.4%) vs. the Big 12.
Scored a personal season-high 13 points and shot 3-for-4 on 3-pointers in a loss at OU.
No. 12 — G Kerwin Roach Jr. | 6-4, fr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 5 points, 1/5 FGs, 3/6 FTs, 2 rebounds in 19 minutes
Freakishly athletic, freshman Kerwin Roach (7.1 points) is the most likely Longhorn to put a defender in a highlight reel or Vine loop.
The more Roach plays the better he looks. In UT’s past 10 games, the first-year guard is averaging 9.9 points and 3.9 rebounds, and making 59.2% of his shots.
Had 12 points and 3 rebounds in win over OU.
Produced his first career double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds) to go with 2 assists and 4 steals as Texas beat Vanderbilt in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
In 16 Big 12 games, has made 8 of his 21 tries from 3-point range.
Registered 2 or more steals 3 times in Big 12 play.
No. 32 — F Shaquille Cleare | 6-8, jr.
— Jan. 23 at KU: 2 points, 1/2 FGs in 3 minutes
When you see junior big man Shaquille Cleare (3.4 points) go to work, you’re not surprised to learn the massive post player’s favorite former Longhorn is Dexter Pittman.
A transfer from Maryland who sat out last season, Cleare put up a career-best 14 points in a loss to Baylor just over a week ago and pulled down 3 of his 5 rebounds on offense.
Making 56.9% of his shot attempts in Big 12 action, while averaging 4.3 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14.3 minutes.
Undeniably, Tubby Smith’s Texas Tech team is on the rise. The Red Raiders have won five straight games, a stretch that includes their first two road victories of the season.
As March approaches, Tech is peaking at the right time, playing its way from afterthought to NCAA Tournament team in the past couple of weeks.
But the Red Raiders (18-9 overall, 8-7 Big 12) will have to put together some extraordinary game planning and execution to add another win to the run Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse (11 a.m. tip, ESPN).
The No. 2-ranked Jayhawks (24-4, 12-3), of course, are on as good a run as any team in the nation, with eight straight victories, and in need of one more to snag at least a share of the program’s 12th conference crown in a row.
Smith, now in his 3rd season with the Red Raiders, is 0-5 versus KU as Tech’s head coach. While this team obviously is his best yet in Lubbock, Texas, it also is 0-2 on the road and 0-1 on neutral floors against RPI top-25 teams this season.
Texas Tech (No. 38 in the nation according to KenPom.com) will need to stick to what it does best to win at the fieldhouse, where Kansas has rattled off 38 consecutive victories.
The Red Raiders average 15.4 points off turnovers a game compared to their opponents’ average of 12.2.
In their best victories of the season, they’ve won points off turnovers:
- 10-7 (Jan. 2 vs Texas)
- 11-8 (Feb. 10 vs. Iowa State)
- 24-15 (Feb. 13 at Baylor)
- 14-9 (Feb. 17 vs. Oklahoma)
The ability to turn foes’ mistakes into easy points hasn’t always traveled well with Tech in its various stops around the Big 12 (and one SEC road game) this winter:
- at ISU, lost 14-10
- at Kansas State, lost 18-16
- at TCU, lost 15-8
- at OU, lost 16-13
- at Arkansas, lost 15-8
- at Texas, won 16-7 — but lost game 69-59
- at BU, won 24-15
- at Oklahoma State, lost 9-2
Clearly the Red Raiders will need to find some comfort in Allen Fieldhouse, and this is one way to do it. If possible, they’ll need to turn KU over and go the other way for baskets that will give them a boost while turning down the volume of the home crowd.
Another strategy the Red Raiders will use is simply attacking KU’s defense and getting to the free-throw line. Six of the Red Raiders’ top players have attempted 44 or more free throws in Big 12 play. When Tech makes 20 or more free throws this season, it has resulted in a Red Raiders victory on 10 out of 11 occasions.
Texas Tech’s 76.2% free-throw accuracy in conference games leads the Big 12.
Defensively, Tech’s biggest strength is its shot-blocking ability. The Red Raiders are averaging 4.5 swats a game in league play, second only to OU’s 5.9. So finding ways to frustrate KU around the rim will also be critical in their upset bid.
With those things in mind, here are the Red Raiders the Jayhawks have to worry about as they go after yet another Big 12 title.
TEXAS TECH STARTERS
No. 20 — G Toddrick Gotcher | 6-4, 205, sr.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 13 points, 5/12 FGs, 2/7 3s, 1/2 FTs, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal in 32 minutes*
More likely than any other Red Raider to pull up from 3-point range, senior Toddrick Gotcher (10.9 points) has made a team-best 51 3-pointers on 129 attempts (39.5%).
In his last 6 games, Gotcher has knocked down 18 from downtown on 31 tries (58%).
A week ago, Gotcher scored a career-high 24 points at Oklahoma state, behind 4 second-half 3-pointers.
An 85% free-throw shooter in Big 12 games.
No. 11 — F Zach Smith | 6-8, 215, soph.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 5 points, 2/7 FGs, 0/3 3s, 1/4 FTs, 6 rebounds (2 offensive), 1 block, 2 steals in 31 minutes*
Texas Tech’s best shot-blocker (1.6) and rebounder (7.5), sophomore Zach Smith chips in 10.3 points a game.
Had a rough outing at OSU last week, but bounced back by scoring a career-high 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting against TCU.
Playing well offensively in 4 of his last 5 games, Smith has averaged 13.2 points and shot 55% from the floor in Tech’s last 5 games.
Looking at the past 10 Tech games, Smith has blocked 23 shots.
Tech’s worst free-throw shooter among its core players, Smith is shooting 67.7% in Big 12 action.
No. 5 — F Justin Gray | 6-6, 210, soph.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 10 points, 4/7 FGs, 2/3 FTs, 3 rebounds (2 offensive), 1 turnover, 1 block, 2 steals in 23 minutes off the bench*
A second-year guard who became a starter late in the season, Justin Gray (8.7 points) leads Tech in 3-point accuracy: 17-for-40, 42.5%.
Only a starter for the past 7 games, Gray has produced double-digit points in 9 of the past 15 games.
However, Gray has been in an offensive slump the past 3 games: 5.3 ppg in 29.0 minutes/game.
In Big 12 contests, Gray averages 10.1 points on 52.5% shooting (best on the team) and is Tech’s second-best rebounder (4.6).
Hitting 73.8% of his free throws in conference.
No. 12 — G Keenan Evans | 6-3, 180, soph.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 1 point, 0/3 FGs, 1/3 FTs, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 steal in 23 minutes*
Lead guard Keenan Evans (8.6 points) has only dished 2.8 assists a game this season — best on the team — but has become a little more active distributing the rock of late, with 3.3 apg in his past 6.
Had one of the best games of his career at Baylor, with career-high 21 points, to go with 5 assists and 4 steals.
An occasional 3-point shooter, Evans has hit 15 of 43 this season (34.9%). But he did connect on a big 3 to help beat Iowa State, giving TT the lead in overtime.
Leads Tech with 18 steals in Big 12 games.
Making 77.4% of his free throws in conference play.
No. 34 — F Matthew Temple | 6-10, 235, jr.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 3 points, 1/2 FGs, 1/1 3s, 2 rebounds in 9 minutes off the bench*
Not originally in Tech’s starting lineup, junior Matthew Temple (4.0 points in 12.0 minutes this season) still doesn’t spend much time on the court as one of the first 5.
One of the Red Raiders trying to fill the void left by center Norense Odiase, who broke a foot and could miss the remainder of the season, Temple joined the program as a walk-on before the season began.
Produced career-highs with 11 points an 4 rebounds in a blowout loss at OU last month.
He matched those 11 points last week while shooting 5-for-7 at OSU.
3-for-4 from downtown in Big 12 games and 11-for-20 at the free-throw line (55%).
TEXAS TECH BENCH
No. 15 — F Aaron Ross | 6-8, 225, jr.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 7 points, 2/3 FGs, 1/2 3s, 2/2 FTs, 1 assist, 1 block, 4 fouls in 12 minutes*
In Big 12 play, junior sub Aaron Ross actually leads Tech in scoring. His 13.1 ppg average against conference opponents tops Gotcher’s 10.8 mark, despite Ross playing almost 5 fewer minutes per game.
Ross often sparks Tech, and he’ll need to do that at KU for his team to have a shot. He only played 12 minutes in the first matchup because, in part, he committed 4 fouls. Ross was the only Red Raider with a positive +/- vs. KU: +5.
When Ross comes off the bench, he produces by getting to the free-throw line (team-best 90.8% and 65 attempts in Big 12 play) and hitting from 3-point range (24 of 56, 42.9% in conference).
Coming off a career-high 25 points vs. TCU, when he went 12-for-12 at the free-throw line.
Has scored 10-plus points in 8 straight games, a career best. Ross’ last two single-digit outings? At Oklahoma (4 points) and vs. Kansas (7 points).
No. 0 — G Devaugntah Williams | 6-4, 205, sr.
— Jan. 9 vs. KU: 4 points, 1/8 FGs, 0/3 3s, 2/4 FTs, 1 assist, 1 turnover in 25 minutes as a starter*
A former starter, senior Devaugntah Williams (10.8 points) has seen his team take off as he moved to the bench. Tech is 6-1 since Tubby Smith changed up his role.
Williams scored the game-winning layup with less than a second remaining to beat OSU in his first game as a backup.
Produced 19 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in Tech’s overtime upset of Iowa State.
A 37.9% 3-point shooter on the year, Williams’ accuracy has fallen off vs. league competition: 12 of 45, 26.7%.
In his past 4 games, Williams has only scored 4.3 points on 28.5% shooting, while making 2 of 6 from 3-point range.
Has shot 72.7% at the free-throw stripe against league foes.