Jayhawks Prepare for Battle

For Kansas basketball coach Bill Self and his players, there will be no more Tennessee State. There will be no more Towson. And there certainly won't be any more teams like Dartmouth, Winston-Salem State and Rhode Island.

After playing well and whipping South Carolina (70-54) on Sunday in Columbia, S.C., Kansas finished the nonconference season 13-2 and heads into Big 12 Conference play on Wednesday night at home vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State. The other Big 12 team in the Top 25 is Texas A&M (No. 9), while Texas and Missouri are both receiving votes (MU has one point in AP Poll).

Yes, action starts heating up for the No. 6 Jayhawks. Just 10 days into the new year, Kansas is getting a fresh start.

“It’s a second season for everybody,” Bill Self said. “I think everybody sees it that way.”

Kansas certainly has no slouch for competition in OSU. Sean Sutton’s Cowboys won their first 11 games this season before losing to Tennessee (79-77) in Nashville on Dec. 18. Oklahoma State, which began conference action last Saturday with an 81-77 win over Baylor, are shooting a glossy 51.3 percent from the field and have four players scoring in double digits. OSU is led by star senior forward Mario Boggan, who averages 21.9 points (No. 2 in league) and 7.8 rebounds per game. Boggan has scored 30 or more points twice in his last four games, including erupting for 36 points against SW Oklahoma State on Jan. 2.

“He’s having a great year,” Self said. “Most teams choose to guard him with a big guy, and then he’s so good at getting them away from the basket and he’s powerful and good enough to score over big guys. He’s a pretty complete player. From a raw scoring standpoint, I may be talking off the cuff, but he probably has the best inside out game as far scoring the ball as anybody in our league.”

So how will Self try to stop him?

“We’re going to try and eliminate his touches in good places that he wants to catch, try to do a good job of shutting that down,” Self replied. “We’ll do some things that we won’t talk about here, but hopefully keep the ball out of his hands in certain areas. For the most part, we’re going to have to play good one-on-one defense.”

Kansas has been playing tough defense all season, holding opponents to just 37.1 percent field-goal shooting and 33. 8 percent from three-point land. And the ‘Hawks certainly didn’t let up vs. South Carolina. The Gamecocks shot just 33.3 percent from three and their star player, Tre' Kelley, shot a dismal 3 of 16 from the field.

“We didn’t rebound the ball at all the first half," Self said, "but there was a common denominator, and that was defensively. “I thought our defense, especially our first shot defense the first 15 minutes was as good as it’s been all year.”

Self was happy overall with his team’s performance against the Gamecocks, KU's first true road game since losing at DePaul (64-57) on Dec. 2.

“We shot the ball as quickly as we shot all year off of quick transition, and not just layups,” he said. “I’m talking about jump shots. We did some good things, and if we can keep building off of that, then I think our team will continue to get better. I was pleased yesterday. We’re not where we need to be. But certainly we’ve improved a lot lately, and we’re playing a lot better ball going into conference play than what we were a month ago.”

Yes, there are some bright spots for this Kansas basketball team. KU leads the Big 12 with 7.4 blocked shots per game, and is second in the league in scoring margin (+19.2), rebound average (39.4), steals (9.27), and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.22). However, one area Self would like to see improvement is three-point shooting. Kansas is shooting just 35.7 percent from three, and has made just 30.3 percent of its three-pointers the last two games.

“We need to be shooting 39, 40 percent,” Self said. “That may not seem like a big adjustment, but it’s at least three more points a game. We’re last in the league in three-point makes per game. We’ve also shot about the least. We’re making only about 5.7 per game.”

So now the Jayhawks take a seven-game winning streak into their league opener against Self’s alma mater on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in the Phog. Many NBA scouts will be there, as will ESPN 2. And, of course, so will the 16,300 crazed KU faithful. The Kansas fans have been waiting all season for conference play to begin, and now that it’s there, they will show the nationally televised audience just how special Allen Fieldhouse can be.

Welcome to Big 12 basketball with all its passion, intensity, and fire with two of the best teams in the country going head-to-head.

"It's the first league game, so we're going to be really pumped up for that,” said junior guard Russell Robinson. “They have a good team - one of the top teams in the country - so we have to go out and handle business."

KU vs. Oklahoma State: Two rivals. Two teams with enormous respect for each other’s program. Two teams with high hopes of winning a conference championship and cutting down the nets on April 2 for a national title. And two clubs who will leave their emotions and hearts all over James Naismith Court.

“I think there will be some guys flying around Wednesday night," Self said.

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