- Three thoughts from the Jayhawks's momentous victory at Texas Tech.
There have been a couple of points this season when it has felt like Kansas’s streak of consecutive Big 12 titles was in danger, the most recent of which came two weeks ago, when the Jayhawks lost by double digits at Baylor and trailed Texas Tech in the conference standings by a game. Kansas followed up by winning three in a row as the Red Raiders went 1-2, setting up an important matchup between the two teams in Lubbock on Saturday. The Jayhawks held off Texas Tech for a 74-72 win with huge implications beyond the 2017-18 Big 12 race. Here are three quick thoughts on what unfolded at United Supermarkets Arena.
1. The streak lives
On Saturday, Kansas wasn’t just playing a game with major consequences for this season. It was playing for history. The win ensured the Jayhawks will set a record that doesn’t feel within the grasp of any other high-major program in the near future. With a two-game lead on Texas Tech and only two games to play, Kansas has clinched at least a share of its 14th consecutive Big 12 title, breaking the mark set by UCLA from 1967-79. This is not the best team Bill Self has coached during his 15 seasons in Lawrence; it may not be one of the three best. The Jayhawks’ most highly regarded recruit (power forward Billy Preston) signed with a professional team in Bosnia and Herzegovina after not suiting up in college, they don’t feature any likely future first-round draft picks on their roster and they lack impact players off the bench. That didn’t prevent Kansas from finishing with, at worst, a partial claim to the crown of the toughest league in the country. The Big 12 could send as many as eight of its 10 teams to the NCAA tournament and, as of Saturday afternoon, it had three teams ranked in the top 15 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, with an adjusted efficiency margin higher than that of any other league. Kansas was far from perfect during conference play. The Texas Tech team it downed on Saturday went into Lawrence and came out with a 12-point win in early January. Yet the Jayhawks navigated the turbulence and premature doomsaying caused by a 1-2 stretch in early February and won four straight to move onto safe ground. Having already put its most challenging league bouts in the rearview mirror, Kansas will close the regular season with a home game against Texas on Monday, followed by a trip to Oklahoma State next Saturday.
2. Texas Tech needs Keenan Evans at full strength
Evans, the Red Raiders’ starting point guard, sat out the second half of their two-point loss at Baylor on Feb. 17 after suffering a toe injury. That marked Texas Tech’s first defeat in about a month, and with Evans hobbled four days later at Oklahoma State, it was tripped up again. On Saturday, it was clear Evans was still battling the injury. At halftime, he’d attempted two shots, missed both of them and scored only one point, and he finished with just six points on 1-of-6 shooting in 31 minutes. (It didn’t help that fellow Texas Tech senior starter Justin Gray was lost less than a minute into the game after suffering a concussion when he was leveled by a ball screen.) When he’s at full strength, Evans is one of the best point guards in the country, an efficient offensive workhorse who can generate shots off the bounce, facilitate scoring opportunities for his teammates, get to the free throw line often and convert a high percentage of his opportunities once there. He’s probably Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham’s biggest challenger for the Big 12 player of the year award. The Red Raiders might be able to win a few games in the NCAAs even if Evans isn’t operating at full speed because they’re so stout defensively, but their lack of firepower on the other end would make them more vulnerable to an early upset. It would be a shame if an ill-timed injury cuts short one of college basketball’s biggest surprise stories.
3. Kansas’s defense is suspect, but it can overcome that
The Jayhawks have settled on a starting lineup with only one nominal big man, 7-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike. They surround him with Graham (6’2’’), Mykhailiuk (6’8’’), redshirt sophomore Malik Newman (6’3’’) and junior LaGerald Vick (6’5’’). It should come as little surprise that that five-man unit has had issues ending possessions with defensive rebounds. Entering Saturday, Kansas had allowed Big 12 opponents to pull down a higher percentage of their missed shots during conference play than any other team. Texas Tech predictably pounded the offensive glass. It posted a 40.5 offensive rebounding percentage and recorded 16 second-chance points, including a key putback from 6’5’’ freshman Zhaire Smith that tied the game at 68 with a little more than two minutes remaining. The Jayhawks managed to record a massive road W despite their inability to keep the Red Raiders off the boards because Graham and Mykhailiuk shredded a Texas Tech defense that was ranked third in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The two seniors combine to sink eight of their 17 three-point attempts, and 16 of their 32 shot attempts overall, for 47 total points as Kansas rung up 1.21 points per possession. Graham was in takeover mode with the game on the line. After Smith stuffed Graham to preserve a tie score, Graham pulled up to drain a long two-point jump shot late in the shot clock. About a minute later, he drove into the lane, seemingly lost control of the ball and lofted an ill-advised floater that bounced in to give Kansas a four-point lead with only 31 seconds left.