'Hawks Hungry

It's been 10 straight wins for Kansas, but the Jayhawks want more. Much more. They want a Big 12 championship and a conference tournament title. Of course, the ‘Hawks ultimate goal is to indelibly carve their names in Jayhawk lore with the school's third NCAA championship on April 2 in Atlanta.

However, before Bill Self’s fifth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks can accomplish those goals, they must prove they can win on the road vs. some of the best teams in the conference. Kansas (16-2, 3-0) didn’t play very well, but still beat a solid Iowa State team in Ames (68-64 in OT) on Jan. 13. And now KU goes on the road a week later and faces an even better Texas Tech (13-5, 2-1) squad in Lubbock this Saturday. TTU is 8-1 at home this season, suffering its only loss to Las Vegas on Dec. 28. The Red Raiders have also won seven of their last nine games (three of last four), but are coming off a 73-70 loss at Baylor last Saturday.

Texas Tech head man Bobby Knight recently became the all-time winningest NCAA Division I basketball coach. Knight, who is in his sixth year at Texas Tech, has won an amazing 882 games in 41 seasons during his career.

Self said he hadn’t thought too much about facing the all-time wins leader on Saturday.

“But I thought about him attaining that mark,” Self added. “It is an unbelievable accomplishment, not only because of the games, but to stay in this business that long. He and Coach K at Duke are going to set records that no one will ever touch because they'll be coaching for so long."

The KU coach knows it’s always a tough game when going against a Bobby Knight team. And this TTU squad will be no exception.

"They're good in transition,” Self said. “They will be the best offensive team we've played this year in terms of execution. They will play faster than you think and want to get up and down the floor. Defensively, they switch a lot of screens. They are a good, sound team.”

Self realizes his team has a huge challenge with Knight’s motion offense.

“It is very detailed and offensively designed to take advantage of defensive breakdowns,” Self said. “It is predicated a lot on reads. There are not too many people who can teach it, plus you need your older guys to teach your younger guys and you need to have guys in school for four years. It wears you down defensively because you have to guard a lot of screens and movement. His team is in great shape. When it works, it is as pretty to watch as anything in basketball.”

Self also is concerned about such players as star senior guard Jarrius Jackson (No. 3 in Big 12 at 21.1 points per game) and junior guards Martin Zeno (No. 9 in league at 16.4 ppg) and Charlie Burgess (10.1 ppg). The Red Raiders have even gotten an unexpected lift lately from 6-8 senior forward Jon Plefka, who had 19 points vs. Baylor, including 17 in the second half. Plefka, who entered the contest averaging just 3.7 points, has scored in double digits in two of his last three games after scoring just 36 points during his first 11 games of the season.

Jackson (6-foot-1), though, is the team’s true go-to player.

"I do not think there are 10 guards in the nation that are better than Jarrius,” Self said. “He will definitely be an all-league player. He has a chance for conference player of the year. He is one of the best guards out there. I do not know if he gets the attention he deserves."

Kansas has certainly been getting more national attention lately with its 10-game winning streak, which is tied for second-longest streak in Self’s four years at Mt. Oread. Sports Illustrated was even in the Phog last week covering KU’s showdown vs. Oklahoma State (KU won, 87-57). The Jayhawks have been winning with balanced scoring and new guys stepping up each night. Four players average in double figures, led by sophomore forward Brandon Rush at 13. 7 points per game followed by sophomore guard Mario Chalmers (11.9 ppg).

"I think the strength of the balance is that when you have guys who are your primary scorers suffer an off-night, you can still win,” Self said. “The weakness is maybe in a close ball game, who the guy is you’re going to go to. With us, I think that is Brandon Rush or Mario Chalmers.  Every team in the country does not have a script about who is going to shoot here or score at this point in the game. You need guys to step up. Looking around our league... there are a lot of teams that have tremendous balance. I think that is the best way to play. All the best teams I have ever coached had guys who averaged under 15 points per game. In a tight ball game, it could lead to indecision, but so far this year, I would not say that is the case."

Freshman guard Sherron Collins was the go-to guy in KU’s 70-68 win over Missouri (he scored seven of the team's final nine points) on ESPN Big Monday earlier this week, while Chalmers had back-to-back 22-point games against Boston College and Detroit in late December. And then there’s Rush, who has shown more assertiveness in his game.

"Before the last two games, I would say Mario Chalmers was our most consistent player,” Self said. “When you really break it down since we went to South Carolina,I think Brandon Rush has played as well as anyone. He has knocked down some shots and really been a force at both ends of the floor."

Now, a more confident Rush could mean nightmares for the rest of the Big 12 as KU heads into Lubbock this Saturday hoping to notch its 11th straight victory. Self, for one, has certainly noticed an improved team during this streak.

"When you win 10 in a row, sometimes you don't play well but you are playing inferior competition,” Self said. “I thought Boston College, South Carolina and all our league wins have been quality wins. I think we've got five quality wins since we got going and I think we're playing much better."

However, Self knows quite well the 'Hawks have a long journey ahead before they can make their mark in Atlanta and win a national title. KU will take its next step this Saturday vs. Texas Tech.

"I'd say we're a month away from being consistent, being tough and doing the things we need to do to become a complete team,” Self said. “I don't necessarily think that is so bad because it may allow us to peak at the right time. I still don't feel we are where we can get even though we haven't played poorly. Still, I think there is another step for this team and playing away from home will do wonders for us. That's what we did last year and hopefully this year's team will be the same."

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