Thursday January 8th, 2015

Kansas has more challengers to its Big 12 throne this year than it had in any of the previous seasons during its 10-year conference title run. Sure, the Jayhawks have held off better teams during their reign than they’re likely to face this season, but never under Bill Self have they had to deal with a minimum of five schools that could legitimately compete.

They dealt with the first of those challengers, Baylor, on Wednesday night in a 56-55 win. They did so on the road with their A-game apparently back in Lawrence, but they still emerged with a win, serving notice to the rest of the conference that they remain the team to beat.

Kansas’ win over Baylor is unlikely to garner the headlines generated by Oklahoma after the Sooners went down to Austin and decimated Texas on Tuesday. That win vaulted the Sooners into the top 10 of the rankings on KenPom and solidified them not only as the most serious claimant to Kansas’ stature as the Big 12’s best team, but also as a legitimate Final Four contender. On the surface, this was nothing more than Kansas taking care of its business. In fact, the headlines might be focused on how Baylor, again, failed to get off an attempt at a buzzer-beater despite ample time to do so. Beyond that, however, this signaled a young Kansas team growing up and winning a game that it almost certainly would have dropped if it were played six weeks ago.

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Given that both Kansas and Baylor rank in the top 20 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, the game was surprisingly halting on the offensive end. Kansas shot well overall, but made just five of its 17 three-point attempts, a bit of a surprise since it entered the game making nearly 40 percent of its shots from behind the arc. Baylor, meanwhile shot just 34 percent from the floor and had as many assists as turnovers (nine).

While Kansas’ youngsters have taken steps forward this season, it was a previously unheralded junior who led the team on offense on Wednesday night. Jamari Traylor, who came into the game averaging 5.1 points per game, went 6-for-7 from the field, scoring a team-high 13 points. Kansas suffered through a four-minute field-goal drought at the end of the first half, but Traylor had an impressive putback off a Frank Mason III miss to cut Baylor’s lead to two. He then scored seven points in the first three minutes of the second half, keeping the Jayhawks close at a stage of the game during which the home team could have built itself a nice cushion.

From that point forward, the game was played within a nine-point window. Traylor may have carried the Jayhawks in the middle portion of the game, but if they’re going to win their 11th-straight Big 12 regular season title, the usual suspects are going to have to carry the load more often than not. Down the stretch in Waco, those suspects rose to the challenge.

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With six minutes left in the game, the Jayhawks trailed by one. They scored on five of their next six possessions, with Mason and Wayne Selden Jr. doing all the heavy lifting. The duo combined for 11 points and three assists on those possessions, including a huge triple by Selden (assisted by Mason) that gave Kansas a lead it would never relinquish.

The endgame was yet another debacle for the Bears. Mason went to the line with 3.9 seconds left and the Jayhawks ahead by one. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, leading to a mad dash down the court on which Lester Medford ended up with the ball in his hands and a wide open look at the hoop. Instead of pulling up with the clock about to hit zeroes, he tried to drive to the basket. By time he got there, time had expired. Ultimately, it was a missed opportunity for Baylor to strike an early blow in the loaded Big 12.

This may very well be the year someone other than Kansas wins the Big 12. Oklahoma is undoubtedly a serious threat, as is Iowa State, Texas, West Virginia and, yes, Baylor, despite what happened on Wednesday night. The road to the Big 12 championship, however, still runs through Lawrence.

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