Is Kansas ready for to claim another conference title? Phog.net thinks so, but let’s take a look a KU’s toughest opponents this season.
KU’s stiffest competition likely will come from the Texas A&M Aggies. Like Kansas, the Aggies return a bulk of their scoring. Unlike KU, Gillespie has a more seasoned bunch including one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country – senior guard Acie Law and junior center Joseph Jones. The dynamic duo led Gillespie’s squad to an impressive NCAA Tournament showing last season, the first for A&M since 1987. It’s been quite a ride from 0-17 oblivion three years ago to one shot short of the Sweet Sixteen. The Aggies hope to continue their incredible reversal of fortune by advancing even farther this year. Gillespie has always had success recruiting in Texas and this year was no different. The third year coach plucked five of the state’s top 20 prospects to help add depth to the roster. As always, the Aggies will focus on the defensive end of the floor where they gave up a stingy 60.3 points in conference play last season. In a very short time expectations have risen and coaches in and out of the Big 12 are realizing what a nightmare the Aggies are to match up with.
Head Coach Rick Barnes lost three players to early entry (LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, and P.J. Tucker) and two solid contributors to graduation (Brad Buckman, and Kenton Paulino). But in Austin it’s not about rebuilding, it’s about reloading and UT restocked with one of the nation’s premiere recruiting classes. It starts with versatile and athletic forward, Kevin Durant, who will likely be in burnt orange for just one year. The co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American can handle the ball and causes matchup problems for any opponent. His wingspan extends over seven feet and he has excellent perimeter skills. Damion James was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Texas and was a Sooner until Kelvin Sampson left Norman. The Sooners’ loss was undoubtedly the Longhorns gain. D.J. Augustin might be the best playmaker in the Big 12 and was also a Mc’Donald’s All-American. Though they are young and raw, they are extremely talented. They remind me of a certain team from Kansas that rallied to win the conference last year. Only Duke, UCONN, and Texas have made the Sweet Sixteen four out of the last five years and with all the talent in Austin it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they advance past Round two of the NCAA Tournament once again. What has been a surprise are the contributions Barnes has gotten from A.J. Abrams and Justin Mason. Abrams is averaging 16.5 points, and is stroking it from long range hitting over 47 percent of his shots.
The 2005-2006 campaign is probably one Oklahoma State fans would like to forget. Even one of the nation’s top recruiting classes failed to save the Cowboys from a sub-par performance on the court and an eventful season off of it. A bout with alcoholism eventually cost Eddie Sutton his job and forced him to end his career two wins short of 800. His replacement was a foregone conclusion since the legendary coach had been grooming his son to take over since 2004. There are two good reasons the Cowboys can contend for a Big 12 title – Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry. One of the two Stillwater star has lead the team in scoring in all 16 games this season. Boggan averages nearly 22 points a game and almost eight rebounds, and is coming off a 26-point, 13-rebound effort against Baylor. Curry is averaging nearly 19 points a game and is not afraid to take the big shot. Self expects to see a much-improved OSU team on Wednesday.
"I think Oklahoma State is a lot better than they were last year even though the core players are the same," Self said Monday at his weekly press conference.
"It's the first league game, so we're going to be really pumped up for that. They have a good team - one of the top teams in the country - so we have to go out and handle business,”stated junior guard Russell Robinson.
OSU, Texas, and A&M will be KU’s biggest obstacles in the quest for another Big 12 title. Every night is a war in conference play but on paper, it looks like KU may have a favorable schedule. With three teams currently in the top ten, it appears the Big 12 could be a top-heavy league in 2007, and KU will face the league’s toughest opposition on its own floor – a definite advantage. Self’s squad plays conference favorites Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M in Lawrence. For the Cowboys, Wednesday will be their first true road game of the season but the real question is can anyone stop Mario Boggan?
“He's a pretty complete player. From a raw scoring point, he probably has the best inside-out game scoring the ball in our league,” said Self. “It seems like one-third of his points comes from inside, one-third comes from the perimeter and the other third coming from the line. He can score pretty much anywhere on the floor. We're probably going to try and limit his touches in places he likes to catch it. We'll do some things to try and keep the ball out of his hands, but for the most part, you have to play good one-on-one defense against him."
Billy Gillispie’s Texas A&M Aggies feature a defense is as good as any in the nation. The last game on the Big 12 slate features a game at home in Lawrence against Texas. By then the young Longhorns may be an even tougher out but at least Kansas gets Rick Barnes’ team on its home floor.
The conference favorites will have to win in Lawrence but can you really call away games in Ames, Lubbock, Waco, Lincoln, Columbia, Boulder, Manhattan, and Norman “easy”? Probably not. Conference play proves time and time again every night on the road can turn into a battle. However, it is a down year for the Sooners, and at K-State Bob Huggins will have to fill the void left by freshman Bill Walker who is out for the season with a knee injury. A win at rival Missouri will certainly be no walk in the park now that Mike Anderson is at the helm. KU has a history of issues in Boulder, and Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears are ready to compete in this league. Iowa State has already won in Columbia and Greg McDermott’s squad cannot be taken lightly. There’s also a reason Bob Knight has won a record number of games over the years – Texas Tech will be ready to spoil a visit by the Jayhawks like it did two years ago.
Yes, the road games will certainly test KU but the Jayhawks are on a high after dismantling South Carolina Saturday in Columbia.
"Usually, you don't pressure as well on the road as you do at home, but I thought we did a great job of pressuring in the first half. I thought our first-shot defense, especially in the first 15 minutes, was as good as it’s been all year,” Self continued. “We played very smart down the stretch. I thought, when we had the lead, a very well played, methodical ending to the game, which is what you want on the road in that situation.”
Hopefully beating the 2006 NIT champs helps to exorcise the demons – the Blue Demons that is. So KU goes into conference play with some momentum and the belief that it can handle three of its first five Big 12 matchups away from the friendly confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
“We are not quite where we need to be, but certainly we've played a lot better lately and we feel very confident heading into conference play than what we were a month ago,” according to Self.