8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Texas Tech -5.5, Over/Under: 135.5
A crucial Big XII test is on tap from Lubbock, Texas, as the Twelfth-Ranked Kansas Jayhawks battle the Fourteenth-Ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders from United Supermarkets Arena, with the victor remaining in the race for a league title and the loser likely dropping out altogether. This could be it, folks, for Kansas’ (20-6, 9-4 in Big XII) fourteen-year reign of dominance in the Big XII could very well be coming to an end in a few weeks, with a pair of extremely critical matchups to dictate their fate. At the moment, the Jayhawks currently sit tied with their opponent tonight for Second Place in the conference, with both teams trailing Kansas State by a single game in the standings. Furthermore, they face their bitter instate rivals on Monday Night in Lawrence, so it wouldn’t be hyperbole to proclaim that this is by far and away the biggest two-game stretch that Bill Self’s charges will have to face this season. So how have the mighty Jayhawks found themselves in such a predicament, you ask? Has the competition finally caught up to them? Well, while that notion is partially true, this has been an uncharacteristically rough year for this Program, which has seen one star player lost for the season to injury (Udoka Azubuike), and another branded academically ineligible (Silvio De Sousa), coupled with injury spells for the likes of Lagerald Vick (14.1 PTS, 47.6% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 16.3 PER) and Marcus Garrett (7.2 PTS, 40.2% FG, 22.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.4 AST 1.8 STL, 13.1 PER), which has severely taxed this group’s size and depth, with their neighbors in the league ready exploit these weaknesses at a moment’s notice. At full strength this team would likely be in line with loaded previous incarnations, but the fact is that this particular unit simply hasn’t, and more importantly won’t, meet their potential, leaving Self and his Staff to push them to be greater than the sum of leftover. To say that the absences have been noticeable would be putting it mildly. At 7′-0″, 270 lbs, Azubuike (13.4 PTS, 7.5% FG, 6.8 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.6 BLK, 31.0 PER) was arguably the most imposing deterrent in the painted area in not just the Big XII, but the entire country, and losing after just nine games to a torn ligament in his right hand has left quite an impact on the Jayhawks’ Defense. At 6′-9″, De Sousa in all likelihood could have helped fill that void, but the Sophomore was barred from setting foot on the court after the NCAA found that his legal guardian received impermissible benefits. Then there’s Vick, their most prolific shooter from the perimeter, and Garrett, their most tenacious on-ball defender missing time to various bumps and bruises. So is it any wonder that this group experienced a ugly midseason swoon which saw them drop four out of six contests?
However, as reigning champions often do, Kansas rallied from that nadir, winning each of their last three outings, with the most recent being a merciless 78-53 drubbing of struggling West Virginia. With the Mountaineers wasting away at a dreadful 2-10 in Big XII Play, it was unrealistic to think that they would escape Phog Allen Fieldhouse with anything less than a sound beating, which was exactly what happened last Saturday. The hosts put forth a proverbial blitzkrieg in the First Half, outscoring the visiting side 43-16 throughout the first twenty minutes of action. Seriously, folks, they had Sixteen Points at Halftime. That’s all. Self’s troops shot a blistering 52.8% from the field, including 2-0of-33 from within the arc (60.6%) and 8-of-20 beyond it (40.0%), assisting on Seventeen of their Twenty-Eight Field Goals. Five different players scored in double-figures, with Devon Dotson (12.2 PTS, 50.0% FG, 43.1% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 17.4 PER) and K.J. Lawson (3.3 PTS, 48.3% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 0.5 AST, 14.5 PER) dropping Fifteen Points apiece, while his brother, Dedric (19.2 PTS, 50.6% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 10.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.2 STL, .1 BLK, 27.5 PER), added another Fourteen Points in the affair. Defensively, this was arguably the Jayhawks’ finest performance of the season, permitting a scant 33.4% shooting from the field, including a miserable 3-of-23 from downtown (13.0%), and forcing a whopping Twenty-Four Turnovers. Furthermore, this win marked just the third time all season in which they managed to relegate a team below Fifty-Three Points, and the first time that held a fellow Big XII opponent below Sixty. Coinciding with this recent winning streak has been Self’s decision to deploy four Freshmen in the starting Lineup. Granted, given the frequent absences, this has been out of necessity, but one can’t argue with results, particularly when it could provide sorely needed depth and experience in lieu of the coming NCAA Tournament. Along with the aforementioned Dotson, Kansas has started fellow Freshmen Ochai Agbaji (1.8 PTS, 53.5% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 18.2 PER), Quentin Grimes (7.7 PTS, 37.9% FG, 31.7% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.4 STL, 6.8 PER), and David McCormack (2.2 PTS, 51.2% FG, 2.3 REB, 0.4 BLK, 14.6 PER), with each player seeing a significant bump in playing time. As the stakes get higher over the next few days, it should be interesting to see just how much Self trusts these kids, and if they do in fact repay said trust with what could very well be a fifteenth Big XII Championship.
Meanwhile, Texas Tech (21-5, 9-4 in Big XII) too has successfully righted the ship after a midseason swoon, having won six out of their last seven contests after suffering a three-game losing streak. Ironically, that lone loss during this current stretch came against their opponent tonight, an uninspiring 63-79 defeat at Kansas. At the time, the Jayhawks were going through their own dismal run, carrying a similar three-game losing streak into that showdown in Lawrence two weeks ago. However, it became rather evident early that one team came to play while the other was set to get slaughtered. This was one was over early, folks, as the home side effectively ended the affair in the First Half, establishing a commanding 46-26 lead heading into Intermission. This was a case in which the Red Raiders couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end, largely because they couldn’t harass their opponent into turnovers, which of course leads to easier opportunities in the transition. If there is an Achilles Heel for this team, that would be it, for Chris Beard’s charges simply aren’t efficient enough on the offensive end to beat good teams without the benefit of extra possessions. Case in point; Tech ranks first in the Big XII in a slew of defensive categories, including Points Allowed (61.2), Opponent’s Field Goal Percentage (38.7%), Two-Point Field Goal Percentage (44.5%), and Three-Point Percentage (30.6%), along with Assists Allowed (10.2), while also pacing things in Steals (7.5) and Turnovers (15.5). On this night, Kansas performed well enough, shooting 45.8% from the field, including 13-of-30 from beyond the arc (43.3%), and dishing out Nineteen Assists in comparison to committing only Thirteen Turnovers. On the flipside, the visitors shot a mere 34.4% from the field themselves, including a head-scratching 6-of-28 from downtown (21.4%), and managed a pathetic Eight Assists, providing further evidence of their inability to score on the strength of their own ball-movement. Sophomore Guard Jarrett Culver (17.7 PTS, 50.0% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.1 STL, o.4 BLK, 25.2 PER) really struggled, scoring just Ten Points on 5-of-17 shooting overall (29.4%), including 0-of-6 from three (0.00%), while racking up Five Turnovers opposed to only One Assist.
However, cheer up Red Raider Fans, for since that embarrassing performance, your team has been on a bonafide roll winning four consecutive outings in rather convincing fashion by an average margin of 24.0 Points per Game. Granted, they’ve certainly enjoyed feasting on the bottom feeders of the Big XII, blowing away West Virginia (81-50), Oklahoma (66-54), and Oklahoma State (78-50), who are a combined 9-30 in conference play thus far. With that said, last Saturday’s meeting with Baylor, who sits in the middle of pack, was definitely impressive as Texas Tech routed the Bears in an 86-61 victory. This one was never close, as Beard’s troops posted their largest beating of this particular opponent since 2002. This affair read like a reverse fixture of the previous meeting with Kansas, for the hosts pestered the Bears on the defensive end, relegating them to 34.7% shooting from the field, and forcing a staggering Nineteen Turnovers while permitting a scant Six Assists. This aggressiveness afforded them the luxury of taking near permanent residence from the Charity Stripe, where Tech calmly knocked down 30-of-35 Free-Throws (85.7%), with both figures representing season-highs, outscoring their counterpart by a dozen points. Despite shooting just 10-of-25 from within the arc (40.0%), the home side was very effective from distance, netting 12-of-29 from downtown (41.4%), including a white-hot 8-of-14 (57.1%) in the First Half alone. The aforementioned Culver did the majority of his damage from there, shooting 3-of-6 from long-range (50.0%), in route to a team-high Eighteen Points, while Davide Moretti (10.9 PTS, 48.3% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 1.7 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 16.9 PER) chipped in with Seventeen Points on 4-of-9 shooting (44.4%), including 4-of-8 from distance (50.0%).