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Kansas basketball has exhibited a stranglehold on the Big XII for the last decade and a half that can rarely be matched in the world of sports. Outside of the New England Patriots absolute punishment of the rest of the AFC East, no franchise or program has consistently topped its primary opponents quite like the Jayhawks.
For those unaware, Kansas has won or shared the regular season Big XII title every single season since 2005. Other programs have more national championships or more tournament success in that period, but Kansas has been dominant through the toughest part of its schedule year in and year out.
Even in the last three seasons that Kansas shared the title during the streak, the Jayhawks won tiebreakers or later proved themselves to be the best team in the conference. In 2013, in-state rival Kansas State shared the crown with Kansas, yet the Jayhawks swept the Wildcats and later won the Big XII Tournament. In both 2008 and 2006, it was Texas who met the Jayhawks at the top of the standings. In both of those seasons, the Longhorns beat Kansas in the schools’ only meeting, each time in Austin on Texas’ home floor. In both of those years, however, the Jayhawks avenged the loss with a neutral court victory in the Big XII Tournament Championship.
The only time in the entire 14 year run that Kansas hasn’t proven itself to be the premier team in the conference was the very first year of the streak. The Jayhawks shared the conference title with Oklahoma, thanks in part to a loss in their only meeting with the Sooners, inconveniently scheduled in Norman. In fact, no team in the past 14 years has kept pace with Kansas by beating the Jayhawks at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. All four teams to share the title during the streak either weren’t schedule to play in Lawrence or lost at Kansas.
In 2005, Kansas then lost early in the Big XII Tournament and was upset by Bucknell in the first round of the Big Dance. This occurred in 2005, when I was in the eighth grade. Since then, I have attended high school and college, worked for multiple employers, gotten married, bought a house, adopted a dog, grew seven inches taller, and gained about 100 pounds. During all of that, Kansas has held sat on its Big XII throne without any real threats.
If the writers of Game of Thrones replicated the inner workings of the Big XII in the last fourteen years, the show would revolve around a happy king, scheming underlings causing drama in vein, and a whole lot less death and destruction.
Until this season.
For the first time in a few years, the streak is in real jeopardy. The last three seasons, no Big XII team has even finished a game behind the Jayhawks at the top, let alone pose a real threat to top them. This year, however, that will not be the case. In fact, Kansas is in its most dire situation in more than a decade. The Jayhawks sit tied for third place, two games behind first place Kansas State, with only four conference games remaining on the schedule. For Kansas to even earn a share of the crown and continue the streak, Bill Self and his boys would need a minor miracle.
How did this happen? Well, there’s a lot of factors, each somewhat equally responsible.
The Kansas roster is in shambles.
A box score from a recent Kansas game would look like an artifact from a dark dystopian nightmare if shown to a Jayhawk fan months ago. The players in Bill Self’s rotation have changed drastically for a variety of reasons.
Udoka Azubuike, expected to be a centerpiece of the Kansas frontcourt, tore a ligament in his hand, requiring season ending surgery, after just nine games. Self generally prefers to play an old school brand of basketball with two traditonal big men on the floor. Without his leading rebounder from last season available, that became a more difficult proposition.
Ideally, Kansas would have replaced Azubuike with controversy embroiled sophomore Silvio De Sousa. Almost on cue, when the Jayhawks needed him most, De Sousa was suspended by the NCAA for his role in accepting illegal benefits. He was suspended two full seasons, which is itself a head scratching mystery, but on the court, it left the Jayhawks severely hampered.
These losses made the roles of the players still on the floor for Kansas even more important. Any disappointment would be magnified. That’s absolutely been the case for freshman Quentin Grimes. He entered his first year as an expected one-and-done lottery pick. During the season opener against Michigan State at the Champions Classic, Grimes lived up to the hype, sinking 6 threes en route to a 21 point game. After that, things changed. Over a nine game stretch through November and December, Grimes averaged just 5.6 points per game in more than 20 minutes of action, hitting double-figures only once in that span. His game has sputtered once again recently. Grimes hasn’t scored more than six points in a game since January 26. Before then, he posted a goose egg, failing to score in 19 minutes of play against Iowa State. On the season, Grimes is shooting 38 percent from the field and has more turnovers than assists. Needless to say, not what Bill Self was expecting.
Kansas could have probably survived those three issues, but things were compounded when senior guard Lagerald Vick left the team. Vick was the team’s second leading scorer and top perimeter defender until he took a leave of absence from the basketball program, without a stated reason. Vick returned home to Memphis to deal with “personal matters” and speculation is a dangerous game in that case. Self has said the door is open for Vick to return if and when he is available to return.
These losses and changes have increased the load for every other Jayhawk. Devon Dotson and Dedric Lawson are solid players, but can’t be expected to carry a team to great heights.
The Big XII is one of the deepest conferences in America.
Despite its name, the Big XII is home to ten basketball programs. All ten are competitive on a game to game basis, with eight of the ten appearing in Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of Bracketology. Of those eight, only one (Oklahoma) is even flirting with the bubble. Because the Big XII plays a true round robin schedule, this means that Kansas’ conference schedule has featured fourteen games versus tournament level competition, with half of those contests on the road. That makes for a brutal schedule, the single hardest in the nation, per KenPom.
Even the two teams in the Big XII cellar have been tough tests, particularly at home. West Virginia and Oklahoma State have struggled, in part due to the competitiveness of the rest of the conference above them, yet are still fiesty opponents. Neither will roll over easily, especially at WVU Coliseum or Gallagher-Iba Area, both notoriously treacherous places to play. The Pokes have stolen wins over TCU and Texas, while the Mountaineers have beaten Oklahoma and, surprise surprise, Kansas.
Climbing to the top of this Big XII is a remarkable feat. With Kansas’ roster tribulations, Bill Self’s team must feel like they are trying to climb out of a pit of snakes.
The top of the Big XII is as strong as ever.
The conference can hang its hat on depth, but the top of the standings include some of the strongest contenders Kansas has ever had to battle during the streak. The conference has three teams (plus Kansas) currently residing in the KenPom top 25.
Current conference leader Kansas State is a real threat to make noise this March. After a surprise run to last season’s Elite Eight, Bruce Weber’s team is in prime position to win multiple games again in this season’s tournament. Only two teams in all of college basketball carried over a higher percentage of experience from last season to this year than Kansas State.
The Wildcats are an elite defensive team, full of smart players who know how to play with one another. They take control of every game with a slow pace, physical defense, and smart decision making.
Iowa State is the most talented team in the conference, with five different players capable of making NBA-level highlights. Steve Prohm has a balanced attack that puts his athletes and shooters into the right positions to succeed.
Lastly, Texas Tech is probably the best all-around team in the Big XII. Chris Beard has not taken long to show that he is one of the best head coaches in college basketball. In his first and only season at the helm of the Arkansas-Little Rock program, Beard’s team made the NCAA Tournament and won a first round game via dramatic upset. He’s now poised to make his second Big Dance in three seasons in Lubbock, after advancing to the Elite Eight with a banged up team last March.
This is the best group of players he has had to date, headlined by sophomore Jarrett Culver. The 6-foot-6 slasher is poised to be selected in the first ten picks of June’s NBA Draft, thanks to a modern style of play. Culver aggressively attacks the rim, can step back for a three, and defends his brains out.
He’s far from alone in that regard among the Red Raiders. Tech leads the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing just .84 points per possession. The Raiders allow opponents to shoot just 36 percent from the field and hold teams to under 60 points per game. They are a very dangerous threat to reach the Final Four. Texas Tech made that abundantly clear by beating Kansas by 29 on Saturday night.
With those teams all standing in Kansas’ way in some form or another, the path to continuing the streak looks dire.
The streak faces an uphill climb, but that climb starts with a chance for a major boost tonight: Kansas hosts Kansas State at Phog Allen. If the Jayhawks lose, the streak is as good as dead. If they win, the magic may begin to work wonders.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.