LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball’s feet remain held to the fire in the race for the Big 12 regular season championship, the result of top-ranked Baylor’s 52-45 victory Monday at Texas.
But as at least one Jayhawk explained, the strain facing the team remains the same as it was even before the Bears’ staggering 11-0 start to conference play.
“We’ve got a Big 12 championship to win, so we’re always urgent,” said freshman guard Christian Braun. “Every game matters. You can’t really slip up ’cause we’re in second place right now. There’s no real margin for error. So every game is pretty urgent for us.”
The road only gets more difficult from here for the No. 3 Jayhawks.
Looking to hold serve and remain one game back in the league race, KU (20-3, 9-1 Big 12) will travel to No. 14 West Virginia (18-5, 6-4 Big 12) for a pivotal 6 p.m. Wednesday clash at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va. While the Jayhawks have opened league play 5-0 on the road and are 6-1 as visitors on the season, tough showdowns at Baylor (11 a.m. Feb. 22) and No. 24 Texas Tech (1 p.m. March 7) remain.
And oh yeah, so does a Sunflower Showdown rematch at Kansas State (12:30 p.m. Feb. 29).
While the Big 12 chase is almost certainly down to two teams, KU coach Bill Self isn’t convinced this will simply be a two-horse race.
“I don’t think we’re head and shoulders above everybody else. I think our records give the appearance of that. I don’t think there’s that much difference in the teams,” Self said. “... I could see how people could look at it and say it’s a two (team) race, but the other teams in our league will determine who the champion is still.”
Baylor, which already owns a 67-55 victory over KU on Jan. 11 in Lawrence, has just one loss on its ledger: a three-point defeat to Washington in Anchorage, Alaska. That contest took place more than three months ago, and since then, the team has reeled off 21 straight victories.
Self on Monday declared the Bears “probably the best Feb. 10 team that we’ve ever had in our league since I’ve been here,” besting last year’s Texas Tech squad, the 2010-11 Texas team that started league play 11-0 and the 2003-04 Oklahoma State group that finished with a Big 12 championship at 14-2 in conference.
“I think this is the best team at this juncture, but I also know it’s a long season and there’s ebbs and flows,” said Self, whose Jayhawk teams won a record 14 straight Big 12 championships in a streak that ended last season. “I’m hopeful that somebody will play good against Baylor, including us, and give them something, really challenge them. But the reality of it is, the league race isn’t over by any stretch, but Baylor is well in front of us and well, well in front of everybody else.”
Prepping for ‘Press Virginia’
WVU suffered a 69-59 setback to Oklahoma last Saturday in Norman, Okla., but the Mountaineers were at least able to continue one impressive streak: Bob Huggins’ crew forced double-digit turnovers for a 17th consecutive game.
In fact, WVU has forced double-digit turnovers in 22 of its 23 games and 14 or more turnovers in 16 consecutive contests. Wichita State, the lone team to not commit double-digit turnovers against the Mountaineers, had nine in a 75-63 victory for WVU on Nov. 27.
While this year’s squad may not fully be the “Press Virginia” of old, Self said the Mountaineers have ramped up that intensity of late.
“Regardless of who they have out there, (the WVU guards) do a great job hawking the ball,” Self said. “I think they’re pressuring and pressing more than what they did the first time we played them. They keep bodies fresh. They hawk the ball. They’re certainly talented (enough) that they can go get their own late in the clock or something like that, but they’re quick and athletic.”
KU committed 14 turnovers in its 60-53 victory over WVU on Jan. 4 in Lawrence. In their 10 contests since that clash, the Mountaineers have averaged 17.4 turnovers forced.
WVU currently ranks 26th nationally in turnovers forced per game (16.1) and 36th in steals per game (eight).
“I think their team resembles West Virginia of three years ago or two years ago a lot more today than it did even when we played them the first time,” Self said.
Pluses and minuses
Wednesday’s game will air exclusively on online streaming network ESPN+, the ninth of 10 preseason and regular-season contests the Jayhawks are scheduled to play on the subscription service this year.
Self acknowledged KU has received “a lot of feedback over time” on the Big 12’s agreement to place certain contests on the web-only option.
“So our fan base if they can’t get it will obviously not be happy this Wednesday,” Self said. “Hopefully they can figure out a way to get it because nobody likes it as far as not having the people who support you not be able to watch. Nobody likes that. But this is a conference decision.”
KU’s home finale, a 7 p.m. March 4 tilt against TCU, will also air on ESPN+.
“I’ve said this before too: I think we can all kind of jump to conclusions on how this is, but still, it needs to play out to see what it’s going to be like over time,” Self said. “I think when you go through major changes there’s usually some kinks to work out on a lot of different things. I’m not making excuses for anybody because I’ve been pretty outspoken on it, but hopefully our fan base and West Virginia’s fan base can see it because it should obviously be a very competitive game.”