Despite winning 14 of their first 16 games to start the season, it took about eight seconds for a dark, and relatively unfamiliar cloud of doubt to settle over defending Big 12 champion Kansas after suffering an 11-point loss to West Virginia in Morgantown on January 12th.
And with losses in two of their next four games to Oklahoma State and Iowa State, even the most confident residents of Jayhawk-nation were beginning to wonder if a 12th-straight conference crown was too much to ask of their beloved Big 12 power.
But on Tuesday, the Jayhawks continued to quiet their critics by earning some payback on the Mountaineers in the form of a 75-65 victory to pull even with Oklahoma and West Virginia atop the Big 12 ahead of Saturday’s slug-fest with the third-ranked Sooners.
”I thought we got punked in Morgantown,” said head coach Bill Self. ”What I take away from this is we played more like men than we did when we went to Morgantown.”
Following a six-point loss to Michigan State in just the second game of the season, Kansas embarked on a six-week run of success consisting of 13 straight victories that included wins over UCLA, Vanderbilt, and Baylor–not to mention a triple-overtime win against Buddy Hield and mighty Oklahoma in early January.
Ranked fourth in the pre-season by the Associated Press, and still a favorite to make a deep run in March, the Jayhawks rode their 13-game winning streak to the top of the AP poll for two weeks in early January, and haven’t been ranked lower than seventh all season. However, if there’s one area where Kansas has struggled, it’s been on the road.
Other than their loss to Tom Izzo’s Spartans, which occurred on neutral ground in Chicago at the Champion’s Classic, all three of the Jayhawks’ losses have come on the road during conference play—which is exactly why last Saturday’s win at 11-12 TCU was so critical to this team’s confidence.
But if the Jayhawks are going to add another chapter to their unrivaled Big 12 legacy by capturing this year’s regular season title, they’ll have to win their way through a seven-game mine field of potential problems beginning with Saturday’s showdown at Oklahoma.
When asked about their upcoming clash with the Sooners, comments made by junior Landen Lucas were filled with the confidence that Jayhawk-nation hopes the rest of the team is currently feeling.
”We’ve got our competitive juices flowing,” said Lucas. ”We’re ready to bring it to them. We’ll be ready to play. We have a new hunger about us that I think we’ll bring down there. They are a great team. It’s going to be a competitive environment, and we’re looking forward to it.”
In their first meeting, die-hard fans of Big 12 basketball were treated to an un-disputable classic when senior Perry Ellis scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to guide top-ranked Kansas to a 109-106, triple-OT victory over second-ranked Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse on January 4th.
Although daunting, this weekend’s visit to Norman is only one stop on the Jayhawks’ remaining schedule, and even if they’re successful on Saturday, Self and company will still have some work to do to defend their Big 12 title.
After traveling to Oklahoma, Kansas will host Oklahoma State on Monday—a team that handed the Jayhawks a 19-point loss in their first meeting, before playing consecutive road contests against Kansas State on February 20th, and 21st-ranked Baylor three days later.
Following a visit from Texas Tech on February 27th, the Jayhawks will then finish the regular season against two tournament-bound opponents with games at 24th-ranked Texas on the 29th, and versus no.14 Iowa State on March 5th.
Since finishing second in the Big 12 with a 12-4 mark in 2003-04—his first year as Roy Williams’ replacement, Self has maintained the program’s proud winning tradition by taking home at least a share of the conference crown in every year that he’s been in Lawrence.
But in this season of upsets and uncertainty, the Jayhawks are just one of many perennial powers currently fighting their way through some surprisingly tough match-ups.
And with all three conference heavyweights facing unfriendly paths to the playoffs, all we really know is that this year’s race to win the regular season title will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the Big 12’s best.