Kansas has won 13 Big 12 titles in a row. It may be the most remarkable college basketball stat going, and the Jayhawks have a chance to extend the streak to 14 in a few months.But if ever there was a year for the rest of the league to end their reign, it’s 2018. For two simple reasons: one, Kansas looks good – but not great, and far more vulnerable at Phog Allen than in seasons past. Two: the rest of the Big 12 is absolutely loaded.
If you had to narrow it down to choosing one team over Kansas, you’d have to take Kansas. But given the choice of the field vs. Kansas? That’s tougher, and you’d probably lean towards the former. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU are all really good.
West Virginia hasn’t lost since the first game of the season against Texas A&M. Since then, the Mountaineers have picked up quality wins against Missouri, Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Oklahoma has Trae Young – the man who has managed to transcend hyperbole. The Sooners are ranked seventh, and have the potential to climb. TCU was the third-to-last team to lose this season, and the Horned Frogs have a good coach and an extremely balanced, talented roster. And then there’s Texas Tech, which just picked up its first win in school history at Phog Allen. Chris Beard has the Red Raiders at 13-1 with the No. 4 defense in the country; in next week’s AP Poll, Texas Tech could land in the top 10.
The Big 12 has a chance to send 80 percent of its league to the NCAA tournament – 70 percent is more likely, but still. There are no off nights in that conference.
So the rest of the league is great, and Kansas has obvious flaws. First, though, let’s point out the positives – the Jayhawks are ranked seventh in KenPom and have top-20 units on both sides of the floor. Bill Self is a great coach; Devonte’ Graham is a great point guard. The offense is ranked eighth – that’s a good enough to win a national championship.
But as we saw on Tuesday night, the problems are real. When the Jayhawks aren’t hitting 3s, what are they? Kansas went 6-for-26 from range against Texas Tech, and the Red Raiders controlled the game from start to finish. In two of the Jayhawks’ three losses, they shot less than 30 percent from 3. In the other, against Arizona State, the Sun Devils carved their defense up.
Kansas plays a high-variance strategy. Make no mistake: the Jayhawks are a good – perhaps great – 3-point shooting team. They make 41 percent of their 3s, a hefty clip. That means they can drain 50 percent of those looks on a good night and dominate anyone in the country – even Duke, Villanova or Michigan State.
It also means they’re more vulnerable to losing to Washington, or not being all that competitive against Texas Tech or Arizona State.
The Jayhawks’ ‘A-game’ is as good as anyone’s. The problem: it’s a lot harder to reach peak performance when you’re so reliant on shots that are inherently difficult to make. It’s why North Carolina has had so much NCAA tournament success in the last two years – the Tar Heels rebounded almost half of their own misses, a low-variance proposition. Size and athleticism show up no matter what. Shooting comes and goes.
Of course, freshman Billy Preston would provide Kansas a huge lift if he comes back. Preston is exactly what the Jayhawks need – a multi-dimensional power forward who can get buckets on the interior and clean the defensive glass. Without him, the Jayhawks aren’t the best team in the Big 12. With him, that could change.
A reminder: Kansas only needs to tie for first in order to extend its streak to 14. The Jayhawks don’t need to win the league outright.
If there was only one team we could reasonably argue is better than Kansas, the streak finally ending wouldn’t be as believable. However, there are four. Yes, we could reasonably argue that West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU are better than Kansas.
This kind of talk could prompt Self’s squad to rip off 10 wins in a row. Maybe so. But the streak has to end at some point, and 2018 presents the tastiest opportunity yet.