It is finally here. The game that has been circled on the calendars ever since Baylor shot up to #1 in the polls upon a 15-0 start to the season with a resume unmatched at the time. Wins over Louisville, Michigan State, Xavier, and Oregon were nice, but the big-daddy of the Big 12 was right around the corner.
The Bears are going to Lawrence, Kansas with one goal in mind. To dethrone the kings of the Big 12. Make no mistake, Kansas is the ruler of the Big 12. You get to say that after winning at least a share of 12-straight Big 12 titles. Not since the 2003-2004 season have the Jayhawks have enjoyed a Big 12 regular season title. That was Scott Drew's first year in Waco, going 8-21 with a team full of walk-ons and castoffs.
Challengers have come and gone. Oklahoma in the Griffin days, Texas with Kevin Durant or DJ Augistin, Iowa State's annual push, and even Missouri before they bolted to the SEC. All have failed to take back the conference from Bill Self and his ever reloading squad.
Baylor is the prime choice to challenge the Jayhawks this year with equal 7-1 records and a 2-game lead on West Virginia (who gave both Baylor and Kansas their lone losses). Kansas, ranked 3rd in the AP Poll, is 19-2 on the year with a loss to open the season in Hawaii against Indiana and their road loss to West Virginia. Baylor, ranked 2nd, has just the lone loss at West Virginia.
Both teams are ranked in the Top-10 in KenPom, with Baylor 7th and Kansas 8th. How they get to those rankings though are quite different than what history tells us about these two teams. Baylor, a team that has leaned on offensive efficiency and playing good-enough defense, has excelled on the defensive end of the court with a renewed focus and strategy. While their offense is still good, it is not up to the levels set by the best Baylor teams under Scott Drew.
Kansas though has taken a massive step forward with their offense this season, led by senior point guard Frank Mason. According to KenPom, this is the best Jayhawk offense since 2011. However, it is also the worst defense over the entire history of KenPom (going back to 2002).
Bill Self has made his living on defense, getting his post players to challenge interior shots, athletic wings that can challenge 3-point shooters, and put pressure on the ball. This team though has a lack of size and strength in the paint that Self has not had to worry about in past years.
Lose Cole Aldrich, okay just replace him with the Morris twins. After the twins leave, make Thomas Robinson a star. After Robinson comes Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and the immortal Perry Ellis.
This year was suppose to be Landen Lucas, Carlton Bragg, and Udoka Azubuike. Lucas has been solid this year, providing great rebounding with solid rim protection. However the rest have disappeared. Azubuike played just 11 games before hurting his left wrist and undergoing surgery that ended his freshman campaign. Carlton Bragg stepped into a larger role as a result, but is now suspended due to drug paraphernalia found in his room during a rape investigation search in a very messy and confusing situation.
The result has been Lucas playing over 70% of the available minutes over the past 5-games at center, and freshman Josh Jackson sliding down from the wing to power forward. This results in a much smaller and weaker front line, with just little used junior Dwight Colby as a true post player off the bench. This has hurt the normally elite post defense that Kansas runs out every year and has worsened their defensive rebounding.
|Off Rebound % Allowed||27.90%||29.10%|
What the Jayhawks do this year though is feature possibly the best back-court in the nation, with Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham, two point guards carrying the load for Kansas. Those two, along with freshman all-american Josh Jackson, give Kansas three elite playmakers to use in their offense. Mason is one of the best shooters in the NCAA, making 51.6% of his 3-pointers (48-93) on the year. He averages close to 20 points per game, along with 5 assists and 4 rebounds.
Jackson, a freshman, is putting up 16 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3 assists while still developing his outside shot (32.7% 3-point shooter). In addition, his quickness, agility, and length allow him to cover pretty much everyone. Where he is at his weakest though is in the post, going against bigger forwards and centers. At 6-foot-8, Jackson has the height to play at the power forwards spot in college, but he is barely over 200 pounds.
The Bears are constructed more like previous Kansas teams, with two traditional post players, both upper class men who have waited their turn and taken on larger and larger roles through their career. Johnathan Motley is the poster-boy for redshirting and staying patient, while Jo Acuil redshirted last year due to medical issue.
How the Bears starting posts, along with TJ Maston and the emerging Nuni Omot, matchup against Kansas and use their strength, skill, and depth to battle against Lucas and Jackson will be a twilight zone look at this matchup in the past. Challenging shots at the rim, pushing the opposing big man around, finishing through contact and getting the opponent in foul trouble. Those are all tenants of the Bill Self guide to Winning the Big 12. Well now, it is the Bears with the recipe, hoping to cook up a road upset against the kings.