The Big 12 is tough.
It ranks second in Ken Pomeroy’s conference ratings and first in the RPI. Its teams went 98-26 against non-conference competition this season. It features five teams ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 and six in Pomeroy’s Top 45.
No matter how good No. 6 Kansas looked during its 7-0 run to open conference play, it was inevitable that the Jayhawks would lose at some point. Not even a team that’s won the league nine seasons in a row and features two likely lottery picks is good enough to survive a schedule this tough.
That’s probably the best way to rationalize Kansas’ 81-69 loss at No. 25 Texas on Saturday. The Jayhawks laid a stinker, and in a conference as tough as this year’s Big 12, stinkers mean consequences. Kansas wasn’t at its best and it paid for it with its first loss in conference play.
Kansas shot just 38.5 percent from the field. Freshman forward Andrew Wiggins, after scoring a combined 56 points in the previous two games, came crashing back down to earth with seven points in 30 minutes. Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe converted one field goal in 26 minutes. The Jayhawks didn’t match Texas’ intensity and energy.
“They had us on our heels the whole game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said afterward. “They were more prepared to play than we were. They looked fresher and a lot faster than us to start with. The whole deal is that their speed offset our length, but they played really well.”
A layup from Wayne Selden less than five minutes into the game evened the score at 10, but the Longhorns took a 38-23 lead into the break after Jonathan Holmes scored seven points inside the final three minutes of the first half.
“I thought [Texas freshman guard Isaiah [Taylor] was the best player in the game,” Self said. “They protected the rim and their big guys played much better than our big guys. It was pretty much a dominating performance by the Longhorns over us today. We never put real pressure on them.
The Jayhawks hardly resembled the team that rolled over several ranked teams during the first month of conference play. They were dominated on the glass, beaten for loose balls and didn’t guard nearly well enough to make up for their poor shooting.
That doesn’t mean Kansas is any less qualified as a national championship contender, or that you should jump off the Jayhawks bandwagon and pick another team to win the conference title. Kansas played one bad game after a series of really, really good ones. Few, if any, teams are immune to bad performances.
Kansas can – and probably will – recover from this loss and beat Baylor on Tuesday night. The Jayhawks are one of a handful of teams that can realistically aim for a national championship this season. Saturday’s loss doesn’t change that. If anything, it may serve as an important lesson for Bill Self’s team. If the Jayhawks don’t bring their a-game, they can lose.
“Yeah, I thought we would play better,” Self said. “I certainly knew Texas would play good. We can come down here and play well and lose, that's our league and that's every time you play. We didn't give ourselves the best chance and certainly Texas had a ton to do with that.”
One can acknowledge the Jayhawks probably didn’t play their best game of the season while giving due credit to the Longhorns. In January, Kansas became the first team since 1997 to win four consecutive games over ranked opponents. The Longhorns capped the same streak Saturday.
Texas held the Big 12’s best offense to just one point-per-possession (the Jayhawks average 1.198) dominated the boards. The Longhorns rebounded 48.7 percent of their own misses and 59.5 percent of Kansas,’ while the Jayhawks managed just 40.5 and 51.3, respectively.
The Longhorns have now won six consecutive games and put themselves in position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Rick Barnes’ team has played far better than most predicted it would before the season, and the Longhorns only appear to be getting better.
“I think we're in a pretty good place,” said Holmes, who finished with 22 points on 6-of-13 shooting. “We've won six in a row, including four against Top 25 teams, so we're in a pretty good place.”
Taylor (11.7 ppg, 3.7 apg) and guards Javan Felix (12.2, 3.0) and DeMarcus Holland (8.6, 2.6) form a capable backcourt, and Ridley (11.2, 7.8 rpg) and Holmes (12.9, 7.4) anchor the frontcourt.
This team isn’t as talented as some of the ones Barnes has coached in previous years. But it is talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament compete for a top-three finish in one of the two toughest leagues in the country.
“I am very happy and excited for our guys, because they went and earned it,” Barnes said. “They worked hard and deserve this kind of atmosphere. I told them before the game that they deserve it, but are going to have to earn it. They did that, but the fact is that we are not even half through conference play.” Before the season, any talk of Texas basketball invariably veered into a discussion about Barnes’ job security. Now people can talk about what the Longhorns are doing on the court.