It's Texas vs. Kansas In Big 12 Showdown

Somewhere in Austin, Dick Vitale is shouting, "Awesome, ba-by!" That's because ESPN "College GameDay" originates from the Erwin Center Saturday, a first for Texas basketball. And when No. 7 Texas tips off against No. 16/18 Kansas at 8 p.m., the winner will claim sole possession of first place in the Big 12 standings heading into the final week of the regular season.

"I think it is fair to say that the winner of this game has a serious leg up on the other team," said Kansas coach Bill Self. "The winner of this game, if you are able to win a home game, is guaranteed at least a piece of it. There is not much margin for error."

In fact, the winner of this game would have to lose its final two regular season games for it not to earn the No. 1 seed at the Big 12 Conference Tournament, March 9-12. And losing is something the Jayhawks have all but forgotten how to do these past five weeks. Kansas (20-6) has won 10 straight and is tied with Texas (23-4) at 11-2 in conference play. During the streak, KU has shot 49.9 percent and has enjoyed a 19.5 ppg margin of victory over opponents.

"Kansas may be the hottest team in the country right now," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "I think they're a Top 10 team. On any given night, Kansas can beat any team in the country."

For a while, Kansas wasn't even the best team in its state. KU stumbled to a 3-4 mark out of the gate before losing two of its first three conference games, including its Big 12 home-opener to in-state rival Kansas State. It was enough to lead head coach Bill Self to do a little soul-searching and lineup-changing. By mid-January, true freshman Mario Chalmers replaced senior Jeff Hawkins at point guard. A McDonalds All-American, Chalmers leads KU in assists (103) and is tied for the Big 12 lead with 2.62 steals per game. He's averaged 10.7 points and four assists each contest.

Chalmers is one of three freshman starting for the Jayhawks. Freshman G Brandon Rush leads his team in scoring (15.5 ppg) and in rebounding (6.9 rpg). When joined by sophomore guard Russell Robinson (10.8 ppg) and 6-11 sophomore C Sasha Kaun (6.4 ppg, a team-leading 16 blocks on the season), Kansas is college hoop's youngest nationally-ranked team.

"We just had a couple disappointing losses early," said Self, "but they have certainly grown up and gotten tougher as time has passed. We've shot the ball better because we are taking better shots, and we are certainly a confident team in the attack mode a lot more than we were back in November and December."

While the Jayhawks are surging, there is some speculation that Texas may be slumping despite the fact that Barnes' bunch has won 15 of its past 17 games. But a lackluster 21-point setback at Oklahoma State and a one-point win at lightly-regarded Kansas State will fuel such chatter.

"I think every team goes through phases where they don't play quite as well, especially away from home," Self said. "They probably haven't played as well as they had been playing the last two games, but we've had numerous games like that too. I do think this -- they found a way to win (at KSU). I don't know if the most recent performances by either team will have much bearing on the game Saturday."

A tough week on the road is just the nature of the beast, Barnes said, noting that second-ranked Villanova eked out a two-point win Thursday at Cincinnati. Other highly ranked teams, such as Connecticut, Florida, West Virginia, Georgetown, Michigan State and UCLA have also stubbed their toe within the past week.

"If we've taken a step back," Barnes said, "then a lot of people are taking the Texas two-step with us."

Saturday's showdown shapes up as a blue-collar, defensive battle. Kansas leads the nation in FG percentage defense (36.3 percent) while Texas is third at 37.4 percent. The Horns lead the Big 12 in scoring defense (59.8) and in three-point FG percentage defense (31.6). Texas' scoring margin (+18.6) leads the nation.

"Both teams play good defense and I think that's why they are where they are right now," Barnes said. "But both teams can explode offensively. Both can put up numbers."

Kansas leads the overall series with Texas, 11-4, yet the Jayhawks hold a slim 4-3 advantage dating back to 2000. The two schools have split the previous six meetings in Austin.

REMAINING GAMES FOR BIG 12 TITLE CONTENDERS

Texas (23-4, 11-2) Kansas, at Texas A&M, Oklahoma

Kansas (20-6, 11-2) at Texas, Colorado, at Kansas State

Oklahoma (18-6, 9-4) Kansas State, Oklahoma State, at Texas


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