Kansas Faces Challenges in Winning 14th-Straight Big 12 Title, But Don't Count the Jayhawks Out
Predicting that a team other than Kansas will win the Big 12 has become an act of bravery. The Jayhawks have won at least a share of the conference’s regular season title 13 years running. They lost a National Player of the Year award-sweeping guard (Frank Mason) from last year’s 31-win, Elite Eight team, but nobody blinked when they were picked to win the league again in 2018, receiving nine of 10 first-place votes in a preseason poll released in October. Major personnel defections have not derailed the Streak in the past, and it didn’t feel like Mason’s departure, nor that of No. 4 NBA draft pick Josh Jackson or starting big man Landen Lucas, would either.
That line of thinking was called into question when Kansas lost its second conference game, a home meeting with Texas Tech on Jan. 2. It was the Jayhawks’ second defeat at Allen Fieldhouse in less than a month, with the previous one coming against Arizona State on Dec. 10, only four days after a loss to a different Pac-12 program, Washington, on a “neutral” court (the Sprint Center in Kansas City). Kansas might not have relinquished its status as the Big 12 frontrunner, but it looked vulnerable.
Then the Jayhawks turned around and won five straight, all was well in Lawrence again and the early-January alarm raising about the Streak’s imminent demise seemed rash and ill-considered.
But maybe it wasn’t. Over the last 10 days, reassuring commentary about Kansas’s commanding position in the Big 12 chase has given way to questions over whether it can steer itself to safety amid a choppy stretch of the conference season. On Feb. 3, the Jayhawks suffered a stunning loss at home to Oklahoma State, marking the first time since head coach Bill Self took over prior to the 2003-04 season that they’ve dropped at least three games at the Phog in a single season. A week later, on Saturday, Baylor ended its 11-game losing streak against Kansas with an 80-64 win in Waco.
Those two defeats put Kansas on shaky ground. Heading into Tuesday’s road matchup with Iowa State, the Jayhawks trail Texas Tech in the conference standings by a game, and they have to face the Red Raiders in Lubbock on Feb. 24. Texas Tech whipped Kansas State 66-47 on Saturday to push their winning streak to six, and they are ranked seven spots higher than Kansas in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. If now is not the time to panic about the possibility of the Streak snapping one title short of the amount required to beat the record UCLA set from 1967-79, then when is?
Before getting into how Kansas got here, let’s try to determine whether the Streak truly is in serious danger. A brief review of the Jayhawks’ recent league track record suggests a simple answer: Yes.
It’s only Feb. 13 and at 8-4 in the Big 12, Kansas has already exceeded its average number of conference losses (3.3) over the six seasons prior to this one since the conference moved to an 18-game schedule. This season is the fourth time since the schedule change that the Jayhawks have dropped four or more league games, but in each of the three previous times they took their fourth league L, it happened no earlier than Feb. 23 (the other two times were March 8 and March 9). What’s more, only once since the start of the Streak has Kansas lost more than four conference games—that was in 2015. (It lost five that year.)
Those numbers paint a bleak picture, but as ESPN’s John Gasaway pointed out on Saturday, this is hardly the first time Kansas has found itself staring up at the first-place team in the Big 12 at this juncture. The Jayhawks have dealt with late-season pressure before under Self, and they’ve acquitted themselves well pretty much every time. Thinking that this time will be any different is probably a bad idea, though it’s difficult to put a lot of faith in a team that’s lost twice in its last three games to squads (Baylor and Oklahoma State) that’ll spend the next month scrapping for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
Kansas just isn’t getting enough stops to avoid getting tripped up in the most challenging conference in the country. The Jayhawks are yielding 1.085 points per possession in Big 12 play, which ranks fifth in the conference, but in their four league losses they’ve given up 1.23 PPP (Baylor), 1.22 PPP (Oklahoma State), 1.15 PPP (Oklahoma) and 1.18 PPP (Texas Tech). Conference opponents are making a lot of shots inside the three-point arc against Kansas, and they’re getting extra chances to take those shots by cleaning the offensive glass. The Jayhawks have allowed Big 12 teams to convert 50.9% of their 2s, the third highest percentage in the league, and pull down a league-high 36.3% of their misses.
Kansas has kept its head above water during the Big 12 grind because, on a team level, it is still one of league’s better per-trip offenses and, on an individual level, Devonte’ Graham is putting together an awesome senior season in the shadow of Trae Young mania. Graham has played a greater percentage of available minutes (97.9) than any other Big 12 player during Big 12 play, and in those minutes he’s ranked behind only Young in scoring while assisting on a higher percentage of his teammates’ baskets while he’s on the floor than everyone other than Young and West Virginia senior Jevon Carter.
Graham may be the best reason to believe that the Streak will survive. Another is Kansas’s remaining schedule. Other than the trek to Texas Tech later this month, the Jayhawks’ two road games (Iowa State on Tuesday, Oklahoma State on March 3) should be manageable, although that term demands close scrutiny when applied to a league in which a 70% tourney qualification rate is well within reach, six teams are ranked in the top 35 of Pomeroy’s ratings and the only one ranked below 70 (the Cyclones) is a few days removed from beating a projected top-four seed (Oklahoma).
One possibility that’s probably safe to rule out until further notice is a team not named Texas Tech or Kansas winning the Big 12 title. The squad currently sitting in third place, West Virginia, handled TCU on Monday night but has taken only four of its last 10 games and suffered three losses in Morgantown, and it’s set to take on Kansas in Lawrence on Saturday. As things stand now, Texas Tech, which hosts Oklahoma on Tuesday night, has a league-high 72.1% chance to finish in at least a tie for the best league record, while Kansas has a 45.2% chance, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
Kansas’s history under Self cautions against doomsaying. The best course, even in the face of a mountain of countervailing evidence, might be to just trust that Kansas, somehow, will find a way, because it has always found a way. Whether or not it does, the Big 12 race promises to be more interesting than it looked when Kansas was cruising in the early part of conference play. The Jayhawks are in trouble. They are not out of time.