This is the way it's supposed to be. The way that it was prior to the last two difficult seasons.
Texas and Kansas battling for the Big 12 crown.
Bill Self's Jayhawks are gunning for a truly incredible accomplishment this season: their tenth consecutive finish as champions or co-champions of the Big 12 regular season. KU fans are calling it the quest for a "Decade of Dominance." And it has been.
KU is in a class of its own, but among its competitors, Texas has been the most worthy challenger. The Longhorns fell into a slump the past two seasons, but in the eight seasons prior, Texas and Kansas split their regular season match ups 4-4, with each team winning once on the other's home court. Longhorns fans won't soon forget J'Baller's monstrous second half in 2011 to snap the Jayhawks' seemingly endless winning streak at Phog Allen, nor Kevin Durant's epic first half in 2008...
Kansas has had to share the Big 12 regular season title three times during its nine-year run, two of which were with the Longhorns -- first in 2006 and the Gibson-Tucker-Aldridge Elite Eight squad, then again in 2008, with the Augustin-led Elite Eight squad the year after KD's departure.
But that's as much as anyone can say. For going on ten years now, Kansas has been the undisputed king of the Big 12.
Heading into Saturday's game in Lawrence, the Longhorns find themselves -- appropriately enough -- in the second-place challenger position. Kansas enters the contest with an 11-2 record in conference play, a full two games ahead of 9-4 Texas after the Longhorns didn't quite have enough to steal a road win in Ames and the basketball gods smiled on the Jayhawks in the final seconds of their game in Lubbock, enabling KU to escape with a 64-63 win when a loose ball bounced right into Andrew Wiggins' hands for the game winning points just before time expired.
Hey, you aren't going to win ten straight conference titles without a little luck, but it makes Texas' upset bid an uphill battle. Making the odds even longer for the Longhorns, counting Saturday's game the Jayhawks will play three of their final five at the Phog (UT, OU, Tech), while Texas' closing stretch includes three on the road (KU, OU, Tech).
All things considered, Kansas is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 outright, and barring a collapse a virtual certainty to at least earn a share of the title. If Texas is going to challenge KU and make a run at catching them in the standings, it will have to start on Saturday. Win at the Phog, and Texas would have a chance if it could win out its remaining four games, hoping for Oklahoma State to reappear or West Virginia to play hot at home to knock the Jayhawks into a tie with Texas at 14-4.
So yeah... realistically? It's a long shot that Texas gets everything it needs to catch Kansas, but whether or not there's going to be a sprint to the finish will be determined on Saturday. And that's the way a late-season Texas-KU game should be.
If there is hope for the Longhorns on Saturday, it is in the outcome of the first meeting between the two teams in Austin. Texas didn't just win that game, they flat-out dominated Kansas 81-69, and it wasn't that close. The Longhorns had their way with the Jayhawks -- out-played them, out-hustled them, and out-coached them. They pushed Kansas around, and went about it with a nasty edge of confidence.
The question is whether this young team can replicate that confidence, aggression, and execution playing in arguably the most difficult road venue in college basketball. The Longhorns have held their own on the road this year, picking up three wins at West Virginia, Baylor, and TCU, with competitive losses at OSU and Iowa State. Still, road games have been a challenge, and there's no question the team isn't as sharp when playing in unfamiliar territory.
I worry about the same things that caused me to predict that we'd struggle and lose in Manhattan. Kansas fans are foaming at the mouth for this game, eager for redemption for the blowout loss in Austin -- eager for a win over the top challenger to the crown that would all but wrap up the Big 12 title... and complete the Decade of Dominance. The Phog is going to be fully charged, and ready from the opening tip to run Texas right out of the gym. Frankly, I'm not sure too many Texas fans would be surprised if that's exactly what happened.
My gut is feeling a good bit more optimistic than that, I'm happy to say. Although the performance in Ames wasn't good enough to win, my sense was that it set us up pretty well to come into Saturday's game in the right place mentally. I expect us to come out looking to be the aggressor, taking the game to KU rather than the other way around. I expect to see us pushing the ball in transition. I expect to see us attack the rim relentlessly. And I expect our big men to show up ready to play hard and tough.
Bill Self has done another outstanding job with this team almost as young as Texas, but that's the deal: these Jayhawks are young. They have size, and they definitely have talent, but they're young. They played like a young team when they got pushed around in Austin, they've looked young and vulnerable against other Big 12 teams on the road, and on Saturday they could very well look too young to pounce on Texas in a Phog-fueled title-clincher. Lord help us if they do start hot and rattle our confidence... but yeah: they're young, too. They may or may not be ready to deliver a knockout performance like a senior-laden KU team would.
As always, we'll go as far as our big three can take us, which means Isaiah Taylor, Jonathan Holmes and Cam Ridley avoiding getting sidelined by fouls. That also means being successful in the game plan I mentioned above: Texas must try to establish itself as the team in charge -- the ones doing the dictating. You'll know we're going to give ourselves a chance if we're firing into our transition offense as quickly and aggressively as we did in Chapel Hill, and if we're attacking the rim like we did against the Jayhawks in Austin. Winning will require us to do some scoring from the free throw line, which means hoping for reasonably competent officials who give Texas a whistle when it's earned.
And as a final point, it's worth emphasizing just how hugely helpful it would be -- it's probably critical, even -- to hit a few outside jumpers in the first 10 minutes of the game. I'm pretty sure I know what Bill Self wants to do on Saturday, and if we can't open up some lanes to the rim by extending KU's defense, things are not going to go well for us on Saturday at all. Whether it's Connor, Holmes, Javan, Walker, or Croaker, we need somebody to get their J'Covan on and splash a few nets from 22 feet. If that happens, we'll have ourselves a ball game. If not... well, things could get just as ugly as they were in Manhattan.
With high hopes for another well-played, competitive, and memorable battle between these two teams, I'm predicting the Longhorns to show up for this game -- I don't know that they'll play well in Phog, but I do expect that they will at least play hard, and come out attacking Kansas with real purpose. I think the first ten minutes of the game are critical for Texas, and in my mind, our ability to play and compete for a victory will depend on whether during the early going Texas can: (1) win the battle to create transition offense, (2) knock down a couple or three good looks from beyond the arc, and (3) successfully attack Kansas without causing foul trouble for ourselves and earning some freebies from the line. If all that has gone well by the under-8 timeout of the first half? I'll feel great about our ability to compete for the win.
It may not take more than a couple of minutes for Texas to fall apart and fall way behind, in which case we're in for 40 minutes of Phog-induced pain. Hell, that may even be the most likely outcome of Saturday's game. Even so, whether out of reasoned optimism or pure fantasy, my gut is going with the good guys. Taylor puts on a show, Holmes makes his MVP case, and Ridley is the biggest of the big men: Texas makes the Big 12 title race a sprint to the finish with an upset win at Phog Allen, 72-70.
Texas better hope they show up ready to play, anyway... because we all know the deal when you come at the king...
You best not miss.