Kansas athletic department officials can start thinking about printing 2016-17 Big 12 title T-shirts and hats if the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks beat No. 4 Baylor on Saturday in Waco, Texas.
If the Bears prevail, however, it might be wise to hold off on any such plans.
“If Baylor’s successful, it’s anyone’s game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Thursday, acknowledging that the rematch of KU’s 73-68 victory on Feb. 1 is “huge” in terms of the league chase.
“If we were to play well down there and be fortunate enough to win, it’d look like a significant hill to climb for the others,” Self added.
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Kansas (23-3, 11-2 in the Big 12) enters Saturday’s noon game at Ferrell Center with a two-game lead over Baylor (22-4, 9-4) and a three-game advantage over West Virginia (8-5) and Iowa State (8-5) with five games to play in conference action.
A victory on Saturday would give the Jayhawks a three-game margin over Baylor and at least a three-game margin over Iowa State (which plays TCU in Ames) and West Virginia (which plays Texas Tech in Morgantown) with four games to play.
However, a Baylor victory would slice KU’s margin over the Bears to just one game with four left. With a Kansas loss, Iowa State and West Virginia would be two back if they take care of business at home.
“You would think that us and them (Bears) would still be the two favorites if they (Bears) get us (with) West Virginia and Iowa State lurking right there,” Self said, quickly adding, “It’s still just a little bit too early to be talking about the league race. That will not be a point of motivation or emphasis for us going down there. We’ve got our hands full playing a top-5 team in the country on their floor. We don’t need to make it more confusing or whatnot by saying this is for the league race as far as having a little bit of a cushion or being anyone’s game. That will not be a motivation for our guys to play hard.”
For fans who wish to think big: A KU victory Saturday coupled with a home victory Wednesday versus TCU would assure the Jayhawks at least a tie for their 13th straight conference crown. A 13th title would tie Kansas with UCLA (1967-79) for most consecutive regular season conference titles in college hoops history.
“We do understand this is a game we would like to win,” Kansas senior forward Landen Lucas said of the Baylor game, which will be shown on CBS. “Obviously with the way the Big 12 is, there are so many good teams anybody can make a late push. We don’t want to open any doors for that. Saturday is a big game for us. I think we are going down there with a free mind but also taking it very seriously,” Lucas added.
The Bears, who have dropped three straight games to Kansas in Waco and nine straight games to the Jayhawks overall, are hoping to snap those streaks and remain firmly in the race for a title of their own.
“Obviously Kansas is in first place. Everybody wants to finish there. When you are playing the team that’s in first place, there’s a little more excitement involved,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Jayhawks, Mountaineers rest
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and KU coach Self each gave their teams two days off following Monday night’s overtime thriller at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas erased a 14-point deficit in the final three minutes of regulation and went on to win 84-80 in overtime.
“We did take a couple days off,” Self said. “Last year when we played OU in three overtimes I thought that would kind of propel us into better play. It did the exact opposite,” added Self, whose Jayhawks went 3-3 immediately following last season’s 109-106 three-OT win over the Oklahoma Sooners at Allen Fieldhouse.
“OU got better fast, right after that,” Self said. “I don’t know if there’s an exact formula. You’d think winning is better than not winning. Either way we were fatigued,” Self added. “I’m actually glad we’re playing Baylor Saturday. That gets everyone’s attention real fast.”
Huggins said he gave the Mountaineers 48 hours off to “kind of retool themselves for the stretch run here.”
Kansas’ press effective
KU’s fullcourt press forced eight West Virginia turnovers over the final 1:45 of regulation and in overtime on Monday.
“We’re not going to become ‘Press Virginia of the Midwest,’’’ Self said. “It did work the other night. It wasn’t from an abundance of practice on it or anything like that. Guys got in the right spots and made some good plays. I don’t think you can expect to see that each and every night.
“I thought Landen (Lucas) was unbelievable at the front of the press, which he’s probably never done in his lifetime. It was a fun night, one we won’t forget around here for a while,” Self added.
The 6-foot-10 Lucas was indeed effective guarding the in-bounds man on the press.
“In practice we’ve done it a couple times,” Lucas said, “maybe two or three times when we’ve all-out pressed like that just to try it out. In those few times, I did get on the ball and do that. I never thought it would happen in a game. I think even in coach’s head he tried out five guards at first before Svi (Mykhailiuk) fouled out (1:15 left in regulation, KU down 67-60). Then he went to me.
“At that point I asked to be on the ball because that’s where I was comfortable at,” Lucas added. “I felt I could create some bad passes. The guys behind did a great job at cutting out those passing lanes and getting some steals.”
The key to playing on the ball, Lucas said, “is to make the inbounder throw it to the corner and trap that, discourage as many other passes at possible. West Virginia does a great job at doing that. We had a chance to take some notes from them and use it against them.”
Kansas freshman forward Mitch Lightfoot had three rebounds and two blocks in eight minutes Monday.
“I thought he played really well. He is progressing,” Self said, “not in my eyes doing it as quickly as he would like. He has a lot to learn. He’s making progress. He’s going to be a good player.”