University of Kansas

Big 12 has title chase it deserves

Kansas freshmen Cliff Alexander (left) and Kelly Oubre surrounded a TCU player on Saturday during KU’s 81-72 victory in Lawrence.
Kansas freshmen Cliff Alexander (left) and Kelly Oubre surrounded a TCU player on Saturday during KU’s 81-72 victory in Lawrence. rich sugg

This Big 12 season, with its teams flooding the top 25 and providing high level action almost every day games are schedule, deserves a championship battle.

That’s what it has. With two weeks of regular play remaining, the race is on, and Kansas needed a tougher-than-expected 81-72 victory on Saturday over TCU to maintain its edge.

The Jayhawks shot 58 percent from the floor but saw a 16-point lead melt to six by the final media timeout. No Rock Chalk chant until 35 seconds remained, and student manager Chris Huey made his appearance. Hat’s off to a much-improved Horned Frogs team that entered the game on its first ever Big 12 two-game winning streak.

Not long ago, a Kansas cakewalk to an 11th straight conference championship was the call. The Jayhawks got off to their usual hot start, defeating a couple of ranked teams on the road, and a path to net cutting ceremony appeared obstacle free.

But this week’s developments crowded the field. The Jayhawks failed to finish at West Virginia and Iowa State learned to win on the road taking games at Oklahoma State and Texas. KU coach Bill Self rightfully called it the best week by a Big 12 team this season.

Oklahoma and West Virginia, which also collected road victories on Saturday, also must be scoreboard-watched.

At 11-3, Kansas leads, but Iowa State (10-4) is right there with a head full of steam. The Sooners and Mountaineers each have five league losses.

As topics, the Big 12 race and the Kansas title streak typically get brushed aside in the season’s early stages, but not now. The Jayhawks are well aware of their position and the legacy. And what Iowa State accomplished this week.

“It’s definitely a race now,” Kansas junior forward Jamari Traylor said.

The incredible decade of titles is part of the program’s lore, and those charged with adding another layer understand the responsibility.

“It’s really meaningful,” Traylor said. “All the tradition. You don’t want to be on that team that ends the streak. I want to win. But at the same time I don’t want to lose. I think that’s even worse.”

Winning road games will decide the Big 12. It always has, and it makes Monday’s trip to Kansas State vital to the Jayhawks’ quest.

Consider the streak. Entering this season, Kansas has posted a winning record in road conference games in each of the previous 10 years. No other Big 12 team had a winning road mark in more than five years.

Nobody wins at home like Kansas. Saturday’s victory kept the Jayhawks unbeaten at Allen Fieldhouse (12-0) and improved the record to an unfathomable 188-9 at home in Self’s 12 seasons.

But all winning teams dominate at home. None in the Big 12 with Kansas’ consistency, but for others that have tied KU for the title or won a championship before KU’s streak began in 2005, those teams protected their home floor.

Kansas is 4-3 in road conference games this season and ends the year at Oklahoma. Tough as TCU has been lately, Iowa State would seem to have an advantage here with games at Manhattan and Fort Worth.

Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and West Virginia each have two games remaining against teams that were in last week’s top 25, and the Sooners finish against the Cyclones and Jayhawks. The race is on and multiple teams could have say on final day, March 7.

It would be a fitting conclusion to this Big 12 season.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlairKerkhoff.

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