Here Comes the Tough Part

KU is off to a perfect 7-0 league record but life in the Big 12 is about to get even tougher with the meat of the conference slate on the horizon.

Make no mistake about it. They haven't all been pretty but the Jayhawks are off to a commendable 7-0 start in conference play. After perusing their schedule before Big 12 play began, 6-0 looked doable. The average analyst would probably say the schedule was favorable.

But after turning the corner at 6-0 KU got its fourth road win of the season by winning at Baylor. It was step one in a schedule that is about to turn a corner towards the upper echelon of the Big 12.

"We're trying to prove something. We're on our way with a 7-0 start," said Brady Morningstar. "We're off to a good start, but by no means are we satisfied. We aren't going to quit working hard. Coach pushes us every day in practice. If you lose your next nine games you end up 7-9, so we are just going to keep coming out and working hard every day. We want to keep this thing going."

"We know the meat of the schedule is just starting and we're going to have to play better." Self said at Thursday's weekly news conference. "From a record standpoint, we can't be any better off than we are right now, so that's a positive. I've been around long enough to know that can change in a week or two. We certainly have to keep trying to get better."

KU's improvement has been rewarded with a spot in the national polls this week. The Jayhawks have won seven straight and boast the nation's longest home court winning streak at 36 games. That win streak will be put to the test Saturday when Travis Ford's dangerous Oklahoma State team visits Lawrence.

Ford's squad is tough to figure at times but one thing is for sure, all five guys on the court will likely be able to shoot it and won't shy away from taking it. The Cowboys are coming off an emotional win against Texas Tech on Wednesday where Byron Eaton scored a career-high 29 and secured the win with a layup with 29.4 seconds left. The Cowboys overcame a 16-point deficit to notch their 14th win of the season.  

"I think they're really talented. They probably make me as nervous as any team in the league because they have five guys that can certainly make a three every possession, any possession. And they will shoot it any possession. No lead is safe; no deficit is too big unless it's really, really late in the game," Self said.

The Cowboys are streaky and their unique comeback ability rests on their aptitude from long range. Four players on Ford's roster shoot the three at 40 percent or better so Kansas will have to work on extending its defense at every position. James Anderson, a former KU recruit, leads the Cowboys in scoring (16.8ppg) and three-point percentage (43.1 %). As a team, Oklahoma State leads the Big 12 in three-point field goals made per game at 9.9 and overall three point field goal percentage at 40 percent.

"They are so aggressive and attack the paint and can really, really drive it and pitch it and shoot it better than anybody in our league, hands down. They're a team that would make any coach nervous because they can beat anybody, anywhere," Self stated.

 "They're a tough team and they're scrappy," said junior Sherron Collins. "They play small with a three at the four, but that's not a problem for us because we can do the same thing. They are a good team that lost a few key players from last year. We can't take it easy because this will be a tough game."

The Cowboys free wheel and are given the green light by their coach. At times that has equated to a big comeback and at times that has equaled a big deficit. Part of the task at hand will be slowing down a vaunted Cowboy offense which averages over 84 points a game – good enough for second in the league.

"If you allow their athletes to play in the open court, I think that anybody would be in some trouble. I like their team a lot. They've won two really close games in the league and lost two heartbreakers. They're used to playing in tight games. Travis (Ford) is doing a real good job with them," according to Self.

Another Big 12 team coming off an upswing is Missouri. A much-improved Tiger team was able to close out Texas (69-65) in Austin and improve their conference record to an impressive 6-2 – their best start since beginning the Big 12 season 7-2 in 1999-2000. Missouri continues to compile some quality wins and is now 5-2 vs. the RPI's top 50 this season. Kansas will have to take on the talented Tigers with just one day between games. The Columbia crowd will be fired up and hungry for a win against the loathed Jayhawks

"Anybody that watched last night's game, which I did get a chance to watch the last 10 minutes of, to me that was a game that was not a fluke," said Self of the win which pushed Mizzou to 19-4 on the season. "That's not taking anything away from Texas,
that's just talking about how good Missouri is."

The bad news for both Oklahoma State and Missouri is that they will have to face a Jayhawk defense that continues to get better. The stingy KU defense is giving up just 38.4 percent and the Hawks have held six of their last eight opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field.

Offensively with the Morris twins Marcus and Markieff continuing their improvement, Mario Little starting to find his stride, and the consistent production of Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins KU is scoring at nearly 80 points per game and in conference play there is no more offensively efficient team than the Jayhawks who are shooting it at over 52 percent from the field.

This February – March stretch will be the difference maker if KU is going to make the tournament and pick up a favorable seed from the NCAA Tournament committee. Right now Kansas is an NCAA tournament lock but there are enough games left against dangerous opponents to turn that around if the young Jayhawks are not careful.

Just five days after facing bitter rival Missouri, KU heads back to Manhattan and will likely remember the disappointing loss in last year's contest at Kansas State. The Wildcats are starting to hit their stride and like Missouri, went into Austin and won a tight one against the Longhorns. Junior guard Denis Clemente earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors and scored 44 points against Texas. K-State started conference play 0-4 and has now raced to a fourth straight win. It's another tough rivalry game against a team that appears to be playing its best basketball on the season. When Clemente and guard Jacob Pullen score in double-figures the Wildcats are 9-0 on the season.

Winnable home games against Iowa State and Nebraska loom but the true litmus test comes February 23rd at Oklahoma. The Sooners have dropped just one game on the season (22-1) and Jeff Capel arguably has the best player in the country on his roster in Blake Griffin.

"I don't think there's any question, from what I have seen, that Oklahoma is the best team," Self stated.

So the best team with the best player on the road in Norman will prove to be a formidable task. This game COULD be for first place in the conference. But don't expect KU's game plan to just center on stopping Blake Griffin. Self knows it is dangerous to place too much emphasis on one player. That was what KU did last season with Michael Beasley and the Hawks ended up losing a game at Kansas State. The 2nd time KU faced Beasley he got his points but Kansas got an emphatic win. The Jayhawks plan to just simply play Griffin tough but players like Willie Warren, Austin Johnson, Tony Crocker, and Griffin Taylor can still hurt a team.

Kansas finishes the Big 12 slate with two of its last three at home. That's the good news. It will be a rematch against Missouri, a game in Lubbock at Texas Tech, and KU finishes with a game at home against a Texas Longhorn team that is suddenly sliding.

There's a lot of work to be done but so far Kansas has put up the numbers and is only one of 11 undefeated teams in conference play left in the country.

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