4:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Texas Tech -2, Over/Under: 142
The more things change the more they seem to stay the same in the Big XII, as the race for the league title will likely be decided tonight as the Eighth-Ranked Kansas Jayhawks travel to Lubbock, Texas to battle the Sixth-Ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders at United Supermarkets Arena. Even in what has been branded as a subpar campaign (certainly by their standards), Kansas (22-6, 11-4 in Big XII) now finds itself presented with a golden opportunity to secure yet another Big XII Regular Season Championship, which would be an unprecedented fourteenth in a row. Leading their opponent today by one game in the Standings, Bill Self’s charges look to avenge their earlier loss to the Red Raiders, an 85-73 defeat at Phog Allen Fieldhouse back on January 2nd. On that night, the hosts fell behind early, trailing by Eleven Points at Halftime, with a failed Second Half Rally that ultimately came up short. Despite shooting 45.5% from the Field, including 19-of-29 from with the Arc (65.5%), the Jayhawks put forth a dismal showing from beyond it, knocking down just 6-of-26 Attempts from Downtown (23.1%), while absolutely getting WORKED on the glass, where the Raiders outrebounded them by Fourteen Boards, including 15-8 of the offensive variety. They also couldn’t take care of the basketball, succumbing to their opponents pressure (particularly early in the affair), committing Fifteen Turnovers in comparison to dishing out just Ten Assists. Granted, Devonte’ Graham (17.6 PTS, 40.1% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 7.2 AST, 1.7 STL) kept them in the contest, scoring a game-high Twenty-Seven Points on 6-of-13 Shooting from the Floor (46.2%), but had nearly as many Turnovers (5) as Assists (6), which combined with fellow Guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (15.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 44.9% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.1 STL) accounted for Ten of the home side’s total. Since that loss, their first ever to Texas Tech in Lawrence, it’s been an interesting path for Kansas, who immediately strung together five consecutive victories, only to endure a disappointing 3-3 stretch that has thus placed their lengthy vice grip on the league in peril. However, Self and Co. appear to have righted the ship at the perfect time, winning three straight contests, heading into today’s crucial clash. When we last saw them, the Jayhawks were busy embarrassing struggling Oklahoma in a 104-74 drubbing. It was a bonafide offensive expo for the ‘Hawks, who shot a blistering 60.9% from the Field, including 16-of-29 from Three (55.2%), while hammering the Sooners on the glass (38-22), and dishing out Twenty-Two Assists in comparison to just Ten Turnovers. The aforementioned Graham and Malik Newman (12.3 PTS, 43.7% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL) accounted for Forty-Three Points on 15-of-28 Shooting (53.6%), Eight Rebounds, Twelve Assists, and Four Steals, with Self’s Starting Five (86 Points) outscoring the visitors by themselves. Defensively, the hosts did an excellent job of harassing their opponent, limiting Oklahoma 5-of-19 Shooting from Deep (26.3%) and Twelve Assists, while forcing Eleven Turnovers. They will need to match that effort on the defensive end of the court today, for their first meeting with Texas Tech was a true slugfest that they were simply unequipped to handle. Unlike in years past, this particular incarnation of the Jayhawks is NOT big or deep in the Paint, relying on Sophomore Forward Udoka Azubuike (14.0 PTS, 77.1% FG, 7.1 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.7 BLK) to shoulder the load in the interior. The Seven-Foot Nigerian is a load for opponents to deal with and by far and away Self’s most indispensable asset (29.8 PER), for without him, this team is prone to getting pushed around far too easily around the rim, which is only highlighted when they become overly reliant on the Three, which was the problem when they faced the Red Raiders back in early January. And even with the big fella patrolling the painted area, this is far from a good defensive team; in league play, Kansas has yielded 75.1 Points (6th in Big XII) on 44.4% Shooting from the Field (4th in Big XII), including 51.0% inside the Arc (7th in Big XII) and 33.3% beyond it (2nd in Big XII), while getting killed on the glass, where they’ve been outrebounded by a margin of 4.1 Rebounds per Game (9th in Big XII). Surprisingly, their biggest flaw has been their tendency to foul, for they’ve committed a staggering 431 Fouls this season, ranking 334th in the nation.
Meanwhile, a win today would be huge on multiple levels for Texas Tech (22-6, 10-5 in Big XII), who could potentially shatter the monopoly that Kansas has had on the Big XII for the last thirteen years. Trailing the Jayhawks by a single game in the standings, the Red Raiders would own a definitive tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the reigning league champs during the Regular Season, which is a feat that the Program has never accomplished. Hell, their aforementioned 85-73 victory at the Phog was their first ever in that hallowed arena, where they bullied the hosts into submission, signaling to the rest of the conference that this year would be different than those past. Chris Beard’s charges did not shoot the basketball well, netting 43.3% of their Attempts Overall, but thoroughly outworked their more decorated opponent, dismantling them on the glass, particularly on the offensive end where they secured Fifteen Offensive Rebounds, granting them a wealth of second chance opportunities. That, coupled with forcing Fifteen Turnovers, granted them Twelve more Field Goal Attempts than the home side, which they certainly made good use of. It was a balanced display for the visitors, who by the end of the night had five different players in double-figures, led by Kennan Evans (17.6 PTS, 47.8% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.3 STL), whose Fifteen Points came despite a dismal 4-of-16 Shooting from the Field (25.0%), though he more than made up for it from the Charity Stripe, knocking down all but One of his Eight Free-Throws (87.5%). Furthermore, the Bench played a large role in the outcome of the affair, with the visiting side’s reserves outscoring Kansas’ 42-16. With that said, as big as that victory was for Texas Tech, they’re going to need to recapture that magic for they do not own much momentum heading into this encounter. After rising to the top of the Big XII on the strength of winning seven consecutive games, the Red Raiders have now lost back-to-back outings, a narrow 59-57 defeat at Baylor followed by a 79-71 loss at Oklahoma State this past Wednesday Night. In both cases, Beard’s troops were done in by some very poor showings on the offensive end, shooting a miserable 40.5% from the Field, including 32.4% from Downtown, while averaging 13.5 Assists in comparison to 14.5 Turnovers. They were brutal in this regard against the former, netting 39.2% of their shots, while coughing up the rock seventeen times, which spoiled an otherwise stellar defensive performance from the team. However, against the latter, they simply didn’t have enough firepower to match the Cowboys’ torrid 52.2% shooting, including 11-of-22 from Three (50.0%). And ultimately, this is the kind of team that Texas Tech is: they’re rarely going to simply outscore the opposition, but they will fight tooth and nail on defense, and doing everything in their power to make life miserable for their counterparts, feasting on turnovers and second-chance opportunities. Just look at their stat line in league play; offensively, the Red Raiders average just 71.5 Points (7th in Big XII) on 44.3% Shooting from the Field (5th in Big XII), including 50.1% from within the Arc (5th in Big XII) and 33.9% beyond it (7th in BIG XII), while dishing out 13.0 Assists (7th in Big XII), and committing 13.1 Turnovers (7th in Big XII), though defensively they’ve relegated opponents to 66.7 Points (1st in Big XII) on 42.5% Shooting from the Field (2nd in Big XII), including 47.0% from within the Arc (3rd in Big XII) and 34.2% beyond it (4th in Big XII), while outrebounding them by 2.8 Boards per Game, and forcing 14.7 Turnovers (1st in Big XII). Another way these kids manage to make up for the lack of offensive efficiency is by getting to the Charity Stripe, where they’ve been one of the most prolific teams in the conference, ranking second in both Free-Throws Attempted (15.8) and Made (21.6), netting 73.1% of their Attempts (6th in Big XII). This facet of their game played a large role when they bested Kansas earlier this season, in which they were 21-of-25 from the Line (84.0%), outscoring the Jayhawks by Four Points in that regard.