Sam Mellinger

First week of Big 12 play sets tone for KU’s run to another title

KU’s Devonte Graham shot over Texas Tech’s Randy Onwuasor in the second half of the Jayhawks’ 86-54 win Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
KU’s Devonte Graham shot over Texas Tech’s Randy Onwuasor in the second half of the Jayhawks’ 86-54 win Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. The Kansas City Star

When the story of Kansas’ preposterous 11th consecutive Big 12 championship is told it will probably not include much about this first week of conference play. That’s just not the way these things go. Our memories tend to be short.

So the story will focus on Kansas’ clinching game or Cliff Alexander’s improvement or maybe about how well the Jayhawks are set up in the backcourt for the next two years with Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham. The details still need to be filled in.

But when the story is told about the streak that just won’t die, it should be mentioned that it took all of a week to see how this would eventually play out.

Kansas beat Texas Tech 86-54 on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse and, in a vacuum, this had all the surprise of a sunrise. The Red Raiders will be overmatched against any of the Big 12’s better teams, particularly on the road, and on this afternoon looked as sure that KU would win as anyone wearing crimson-and-blue facepaint.

But there are a few important developments from Saturday and the first week in general that are already pushing KU toward another league title, even if it won’t be noticed for eight weeks.

The KU combination of talent, expectation, luck, and perhaps the country’s biggest homecourt advantage will take on a worthy challenge from a league field that’s the best it’s been in years. It’s actually a good bet that KU will share the league title for what would be the fifth time during the streak, mostly likely with Iowa State or Oklahoma.

But the streak is going to live, still, like the rat you can’t catch, and we’re already seeing how this is going down.

The most obvious from an otherwise Muzak sort of afternoon is that Graham, the freshman point guard with the face of a third-grader, played 19 minutes with a team-high six assists (a great sign), six rebounds (largely a fluke) and no turnovers (another great sign). That makes a four-week recovery from a toe injury that was supposed to take at least six, and that a doctor thought was a coin flip to be season-ending.

Graham is the only major-college point guard on the roster behind Frank Mason, filling a gap big enough that one possible contingency plan for Graham’s absence was Jamari Traylor playing the point.

Without Graham, Mason has to soften his defense and wears out playing too many minutes, a particular problem since he is KU’s best transition player and his game is based largely on energy and speed.

With Graham, KU can play faster, spread the floor more, and better work the perimeter — all of which line up with the team’s strengths, and help downplay the team’s weaknesses.

The other signs from the first week are more intangible, but important just the same.

The Jayhawks won at Baylor on Wednesday, which is telling on a few levels. The league’s NCAA tournament teams — and at the moment, it looks like that might be everyone but Kansas State, TCU, and Texas Tech – aren’t likely to lose many home games.

The Jayhawks also did it in a way that further establishes their best vision of themselves — the team that will find a way to win at the end. They were down after the first half, then shot 73 percent to win a game the bookmakers expected them to lose.

KU’s biggest weakness is around the rim, both offensively and defensively. But as long as Cliff Alexander’s back holds up, he should be able to further grow into the kind of presence the Jayhawks need.

Alexander is strong and athletic, and even in the last month his improvement and increasing confidence are obvious. He’s blocking shots on one end, and now using a baseline jumper and turnaround hook to diversify on the other end. Kelly Oubre, another freshman who appeared lost and overwhelmed early, is also starting to find his way.

There are other reasons that KU will win this league again. Bill Self is the Big 12’s best coach, Allen Fieldhouse has a way of swallowing opponents (and referees), and there is something to be said for winning as a habit.

KU’s streak of championships has been around since before any player in the league was in high school, and before seven of the nine other league coaches were at their current school.

The whole thing has created this atmosphere of internal expectation and external frustration. The default mode in most years has been this sort of, Well, of course KU won it again because look at all that talent. Two of the first three picks in the most recent NBA draft came from KU, after all.

But that’s not the case now. Barring a particularly strong finish from Alexander or Kelly Oubre, this will be the first year since 2009 that no KU player is a lottery pick.

Texas has two players likely to be drafted ahead of any Jayhawk, including Myles Turner, who KU recruited hard. The Longhorns were supposed to be the strongest competition for KU, and still might be a tough matchup, but have now lost their last two games.

The case against Kansas was stronger this year than most. Iowa State is in that program’s best run since Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley. Oklahoma might have its best team since Blake Griffin, and Texas its most talented since Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. Baylor and especially West Virginia are also strong. Oklahoma State beat Texas on Saturday, and will give KU a challenge on Tuesday.

It’s all enough that this is the most interesting the league has been since at least 2012, when Missouri won the last conference tournament it would play in.

The problem is that when KU stumbles, it’s often early in the conference season, and the first week is now over with the Jayhawks getting a tough road win and its backup point guard recovered early.

We are just two games into an 18-game competition, of course, and college basketball is fundamentally unpredictable. But in two months, when the story of KU’s 11th consecutive conference championship is told, you’re going to be able to find the signs in this first week.

Maybe next year.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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