So now comes No. 8 Texas A&M (18-3, 6-1 in Big 12) to Allen Fieldhouse this Saturday at 8 p.m. for a matchup between the two top teams in the Big 12. The Aggies are coming off a big 73-49 victory over Iowa State on Wednesday. It’s ESPN GameDay in Lawrence, and the basketball world will be watching. No. 6 Kansas (19-3, 6-1) is tied with the Aggies for first place in the Big 12, so this game is big. Real big. Bill Self’s Jayhawks want to make a statement and show they are THE team to beat in the conference.
"I think our guys have played pretty well against the teams that are thought to be the powers,” Self said at his press conference on Wednesday. “Hopefully that will be the case again Saturday because we'll be facing one of the best teams in the country. It is going to be a battle inside. There are going to be some bodies banging. It is going to be a physical game I predict, which they would like it to be, and we definitely won't shy away from that either."
Four days after Self criticized his big guys for playing “soft” vs. Colorado (KU won 97-74), the KU coach believes players like 6-11 center Sasha Kaun and 6-9 forward Darrell Arthur will mix it up inside with Texas A&M's Joseph Jones (6-9, 250), Anatanas Kavaliauskas (6-10, 250), and the rest of the Aggies.
"I said we played soft against Colorado, not that our big guys are soft,” Self said. “There is a big difference between playing soft and being soft. I thought we did better against Nebraska (KU won 76-56 at Lincoln on Monday), but they are not that big of a team. Certainly, this will be a much bigger test of their toughness level in rebounding the basketball. I think we have shown we can do it, and we'll rise to the occasion. We have to play tough on Saturday."
KU is facing a very talented team coached by Billy Gillispie, one of Self’s closest friends. Gillispie, who was an assistant under Self at Illinois and Tulsa, has done a remarkable job of turning the Aggies’ program around. Texas A&M isn’t just one of the best teams in the Big 12, the Aggies have become one of the premier clubs in college basketball. Gillispie took over for Melvin Watkins in 2004 after the Aggies finished a dismal 7-21, and since turned the program around. Texas A&M has gone 43-19 the last two years.
"I can think of only one other program that has done it so quickly and that would be UTEP, when Coach Gillispie was there,” Self said. “His first year at UTEP, they went 6-24 and the next year they were in the NCAA Tournament. Over the last five years, no one has done a better job coaching their team than Coach Gillispie. They went from 0-16 to 8-8 in the league to the NCAA Tournament to having a top 10 ranking. They have a great shot at getting a high seed and have a legitimate chance to make a serious run. Nobody has done a better job than what their staff has done."
With such talented players like Jones, Kavaliauskas, leading scorer Acie Law, and three-point wiz Josh Carter, the ‘Hawks will have to be on top of their game to win. They must contain Law, a dynamic 6-3 guard.
"He is very tough and very fast,” Self said. “I think he has the game to play in the NBA. He can score with either hand. He is a great off-balance shooter, probably one of the best we'll play all year.”
Law and his teammates are a reflection of their coach with their blue collar play and great work ethic.
"I think he (Gillispie) gets his guys to be very tough,” Self said. “They love to play for him, at least from the outside looking in. You can play out of fear, respect or love, but I think he has them playing out of all three. He runs a high-low more than what we do. They have two big post guys that can both shoot and pass it, so it's a great system. The biggest thing, and he'd probably be the first to tell you, is that it is about stealing possessions, getting loose balls and not letting the other team get easy possessions. They take great pride in making their opponents make plays rather than giving them points."
Indeed, Texas A&M has been making life quite difficult for its opponents this season. The Aggies lead the country in field-goal percentage defense (35.1 percent), while KU ranks sixth at 37.6 percent. Self, for one, hopes his star sophomore Brandon Rush can knife through the defense and duplicate last year’s game vs. Texas A&M (22 points on 9 of 14 field goal shooting).
Rush, who was recently one of 30 players named to the Wooden Award Midseason All-American team, has taken his game up a notch in league play and is becoming more aggressive each day. He’s scored in double figures in nine straight games, and averaging 19.7 points his last three contests. Rush has also shot a scorching 56.4 percent during this span.
"He's made a lot more shots lately and is shooting a high percentage,” Self said. “He was just missing a lot of shots earlier. I don't know if there is a major difference between his play before and now. We're not doing anything different for the most part. I just think he's a little more confident because he's seeing the ball go into the hole.”
So are guys like freshman guard Sherron Collins (he’s scored in double figures in seven of last nine games) and junior guard Russell Robinson, who tied his season high with 12 points vs. Colorado. And sophomore guard Mario Chalmers (21 points vs. CU) appears ready to go on another scoring streak as he did in late December. The players seem to be feeding off each other and having fun. Kansas has blown out its last three opponents (Baylor, Colorado, and Nebraska) since losing at Texas Tech, 69-64.
“I think when Brandon Rush plays well, it takes pressure off other people so they can play better," Self said. "I think Sherron has really helped everybody on the team out. Whether by coincidence or not, it has come at a pretty opportune time. Russell Robinson’s and Brandon's play has gone up and when Mario Chalmers is on, he's been as good as anyone we have. I think our four perimeter guys have played pretty well."
Now, those perimeter guys and KU's big men will be ready for the biggest game of the year. It’s Kansas vs. Texas A&M on Saturday with ESPN GameDay live from the Phog. For Jayhawk fans, life doesn’t get much better than this — on Saturday and the future. ESPN GameDay is a great recruiting tool with spotlighting Kansas for high school prospects throughout the country.
"I think the exposure we get from it is great,” Self said. “If things go well, it's even better. There is a lot of buildup to it and I think ESPN has done a fabulous job making it similar to their Football College GameDay program. It will be a lot of fun. I think we can make a big recruiting impact with it with all the fans that come out and support it. ...Even if recruits don't necessarily watch the game, they at least see 10 hours of buildup for the game."
As for the game itself? While Self doesn’t think the winner “should be crowned the conference champion,” he knows quite well about the magnitude of this game as his ‘Hawks begin play in February.
"I think they (winner) will have an advantage and a better chance because they'll have one loss and the other team will have two,” Self said. “You never know what is going to happen, but this is a pretty important game for both teams as they try to accomplish their goals. This game starts a very big eight days for us."
Kansas plays K-State at home on Feb. 7 before heading to Columbia for its Border Showdown with Missouri three days later. But first, it’s a prime-time nationally televised battle with No. 10 Texas A&M on Saturday.
Collins can’t wait for tipoff.
“They are not going to back down from anybody, and we aren't either,” he said. “I am looking forward to playing against them."