As it has seemingly been the case for the past three games, the free-falling Texas Longhorns are facing a must-win matchup Saturday in Lawrence against the No. 8 Kansas Jayhawks. After dropping three-straight games, which were all against ranked opponents, the Longhorns have seen themselves fall into the realm of hovering around the NCAA Tournament bubble, and that bubble could be a single loss away from being popped and absorbing Texas’ postseason hopes with its disappearance. Unfortunately for the Horns’, they haven’t won a road game against a ranked Big 12 opponent since they defeated No. 24 Baylor in Waco last January, and facing off with the top team in college basketball’s most competitive conference doesn’t make things any easier for Rick Barnes and his team.
A look at the Jayhawks
Kansas, 22-6 (11-4), is currently sitting atop the Big 12 and on pace for their 11th-straight Big 12 regular season title. The Jayhawks have a roster littered with future NBA talent and have a blend of talent and veteran presence that could make for a deep push in March Madness. But just as with Texas, the Jayhawks have seen their share of defeats as of late, with Kansas coming up short in two of their last three and three of their last six games with losses to Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas State. Outside of their home win over Baylor during this stretch, the Jayhawks only victories came over the Big 12’s bottom-feeders; Texas Tech and TCU.
The reason for these recent struggles is something Texas has become quite familiar with this season: key players simply not performing. With the exception of Perry Ellis, who has now eclipsed double digits in the scoring column in eight-straight games to average 21 points during this streak, the majority of the Jayhawks’ key contributors have taken a step back and watched their production follow suit. Wayne Selden Jr. has put up only 5.3 points per game during his last three. Kelly Oubre Jr. contributed only one point against Oklahoma State, six points against Texas Tech and failed to score at all after an 0-3 shooting effort against TCU. And Cliff Alexander, who played a big role in the Jayhawks’ victory in Austin has seen the biggest regression since his 15-point, nine rebound effort over Texas as he’s averaged only 14.8 minutes, 3.7 points and 3.7 boards in his last nine games.
The fact that Kansas just ended its worst six-game stretch since its non-conference slate last season, along with the recent individual struggles of several Jayhawks should give the Longhorns some additional motivation heading into a game that could ultimately save their NCAA Tourney aspirations is they somehow managed an upset. But history doesn’t speak to that happening too often, as Kansas has only come up short in five Big 12 regular season games in The Phog under Bill Self.
Keys to the game for Texas
Come out swinging. A Big theme in Texas’ countless losses in Big 12 play is the Longhorns falling well behind early, only to make a solid push and come u short in the end. It’s already a rarity for Kansas to drop conference games at home, much less, blow big leads. If Texas gets down big early, it’s safe to go ahead and assume another L is going to show up on the schedule.
Leave no breathing room on the perimeter. In the first meeting between the two, Brannen Greene lit Texas up from the perimeter after hitting 4-5, which played a huge role in Kansas taking control of the momentum and pulling ahead in Austin. The Jayhawks are the highest percentage shooting team from the perimeter in the Big 12 at 40 percent. If Texas has any hopes of an upset today, they simply can’t allow the Jayhawks to go wild from deep and give a raucous Kansas crowd reason to celebrate.
Dominate inside. Texas has a clear size advantage on the Jayhawks. Whether or not they actually decide to capitalize on it in another thing, but with Ellis being the only interior force having much success lately, Texas attacking inside and getting Ellis in some foul trouble would not only hurt the Jayhawks offensively, but make the lives of Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner much easier on offense.
Pray. Texas hasn’t won a game in Phog Allen Fieldhouse since Jan. 22, 2011, and being fresh off of three-straight losses isn’t necessarily a proven formula for stealing one a game in one of college basketball’s most hostile environments. Texas will need to play a great game, as well a have some answered prayers from the basketball gods to see their losing streak end tonight.
Texas is desperate. They need this win and getting it would serve as a huge boost to their tournament resume. But Kansas wants their 11th straight Big 12 title and won’t allow themselves to lose ground in that chase in front of their home crowd against a slumping Longhorns team on the edge of the tournament bubble.
UPDATE: Kansas' forward Cliff Alexander will miss today's game vs Texas due to potential eligibility issues, according to ESPN.