What could be more perfect than this? The conference's two hottest teams and the two teams with the most Big 12 wins all-time are set to meet on the final Saturday of the regular season to decide yet another conference title. The overachieving and red hot #15 Texas Longhorns (22-7, 12-3) travel to Lawrence for their lone meeting of the year with the #3 Kansas Jayhawks (26-4, 13-2). Tip time is 11 AM on CBS. The `Horns have won their last six straight games, while Kansas has run off seven straight.
If Texas wins, they will tie for the Big 12 title with Kansas and possibly with Texas A&M (depending on their game with Missouri) and secure the #1 seed in the Big 12 tournament. If the Longhorns lose, Kansas secures the #1 seed, A&M, win or lose, would be the #2 seed, and Texas would be the #3 seed.
Kansas Season in Review
Even after back to back first round exits from the NCAA tournament, expectations could not have been higher for this year's Jayhawks. Kansas returned their top five performers from a season ago and added two McDonald's All Americans - Sherron Collins and Darrell Arthur. The Jayhawks are as loaded with talent as any team in the country and should be considered serious national championship contenders.
The only knock on Kansas has been their inconsistency. With a team of mostly freshman and sophomores, Kansas sputtered out of the gate and dropped their second game of the year to Oral Roberts. But the Jayhawks' best win of the year came just ten days later, knocking off then-#1 Florida in Las Vegas. The highs and lows continued as that amazing win was promptly followed by a road loss to DePaul just a week later.
When the Jayhawks are on, there isn't a team better in the country, but they have had their struggles during a couple of games. It is hard to be negative a team that has dropped just four games all season, but true Jayhawk fans will tell you that this team doesn't always fire on all cylinders and has trouble holding onto big leads. Kansas blew double digit leads to DePaul, Texas A&M, and to Oklahoma this past Monday.
Their only losses in conference have come to Texas Tech in Lubbock and to Texas A&M in Lawrence. In the Tech game, the Red Raiders really slowed the game down, competed well on the glass, and sent the Jayhawks to the free throw line just four times. In the A&M game, the Aggies also slowed down the pace, sank eight three-pointers (four more than KU), and made clutch shots down the stretch to overcome a ten point second half deficit.
Kansas's Tournament Resume
The Jayhawks have played only the 66th toughest schedule and currently stand just 16th in the RPI rankings. Kansas is 3-2 against the top 50 but already has a signature win over Florida. Despite the unimpressive RPI, Kansas is in a great position for at least a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament if they defeat the Longhorns. And if they could add the Big 12 tournament title to their resume, they would likely be rewarded with a #1 seed as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida continue to slide.
Kansas is absolutely loaded with talent. Their sophomore class includes three McDonald's All Americans and future pros, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, and Mario Chalmers and their freshman class includes the already mentioned future superstars and McDonald All Americans, Collins and Arthur. Add in steady point guard, Russell Robinson and junior big men Sasha Kaun (6'11" 245) and Darnell Jackson (6'8" 250) and you easily have one of the most talented teams in college basketball.
Brandon Rush, who leads the team in scoring in Big 12 play at 14 ppg, is capable of getting hot from long range. Justin Mason will likely be tagged with the defensive assignment on Rush. Mason is quick enough but may not be tall enough to affect Rush's jump shot.
Other than Durant, Julian Wright is the most talented big man in the conference. He is incredibly versatile, an underrated passer, and an active rebounder. Damion James and Durant will have their hands full with Wright on the low block.
Mario Chalmers was on BON's pre-conference All Big 12 team and would be a superstar on any other team. "Super Mario" is a great ball handler and slasher and probably the best defensive guard in the conference. He is KU's most clutch and, in my opinion, most important player. In Kansas's two conference losses, he scored a combined 13 points. It is will be interesting to see if Barnes challenges AJ Abrams to guard Chalmers, which would allow Augustin some rest while guarding the less explosive Robinson.
If not for Kevin Durant and DJ Augustin, Collins would easily be Big 12 Freshman of the Year. While he doesn't start, he plays considerable minutes and is a real spark plug off the bench. There may not be a faster player in the country with the basketball than Sherron Collins. Arthur sometimes looks like a freshman and sometimes looks like the future NBA star that he is. Against Oklahoma, he played just six minutes and failed to score a single point, but against Florida, in only his sixth collegiate game, he scored 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds in sixteen minutes, and nailed clutch free throws down the stretch.
Ken Pomeroy's Scouting Report
Kansas is rated as 2nd best team in the country according to Pomeroy's latest ratings, while Texas continues their climb and is now rated as the 17th best. Pomeroy's scouting report on Kansas shows a very solid offense (17th in adjusted offensive efficiency) and the best defensive club in the country (1st in adjusted defensive efficiency). On offense, the Jayhawks are an above average shooting team who get easy looks in transition, from their post players in the half-court, and off offensive rebounds. What can you say about a team that is the country's top rated defensive group? They force their opponents to shoot poorly from the field, control the defensive glass, and create turnovers on nearly one of every four possessions. Needless to say, scoring will not come easily for the `Horns.
Keys to the Game: Texas
Control the Pace. For the one of the first times all year, I think it would be smart for Texas to purposely slow down the pace of the game. The `Horns played their mid-week game on Wednesday while Kansas hasn't played since Monday. Throw in two overtimes, a shorter bench, and travel time, and there is no way the Horns will win an up and down game. Rick Barnes must get solid minutes off the bench from Dexter Pittman, Connor Atchley, and Craig Winder. Hopefully Pittman can draw some fouls on the KU frontcourt; Atchley can knock down a few jumpers without hesitation and rebound the ball well over more athletic big men; and Winder can provide some solid defense to help slow down Chalmers or Collins.
Compete on the Glass In the first part of the A&M game, the Aggies dominated the glass on both ends. At one point they led 14-5 in rebounding. But after the slow start, Texas began to box out better, was quicker to loose balls, and actually only lost the rebounding battle 43-38. Kaun, Wright, Jackson, and Arthur are all excellent, long, and athletic rebounders. Rebouding from Damion James, Atchley, Pittman, and Durant is a must for the Longhorns to pick up a seventh straight win. If Kansas gets second and third looks at the basket, it could quickly turn into a forgettable afternoon.
Find Durant. When Kevin touches the ball, good things almost always happen, and when the `Horns fail to get him touches for a few minutes, our half-court offense almost always stalls. Wright and Arthur have the height, quickness, and athleticism to guard Durant, to the extend that is possible. DJ Augustin must be smart with the basketball and get KD touches no matter who he is matched up against.
At this point, Texas really is playing with house money. After the A&M loss, I thought the `Horns could close the season going 5-2 by protecting their home court and stealing one either at Baylor or OU. I also thought 4-3 was probably the second most likely outcome. Well after six games, Texas still has not lost.
Can Texas run the table and win the Big 12 title? It's possible but not likely. Only one Big 12 south team has ever won in Lawrence in the history of the conference and that was A&M earlier this year.
Texas does not match up well with Kansas' big men, and it is likely the Jayhawks will control the glass on both ends. Kansas is deeper, better rested, more talented, and playing simply suffocating defense.
All that said, this team is on a serious roll. Damion James is finally playing up to his potential as the game has slowed down for him, AJ Abrams is playing within himself, and Augustin and Durant continue their fabulous freshman campaigns. Still winning in Lawrence remains a long shot. I don't want to underestimate this team for the second game in a row, but KU's depth should be the difference. Horns play solidly for 35 minutes but run out of gas and fall 77-72.