Udoka Azubuike is injured, the freshman backcourt has been inconsistent, and it seems like every Kansas game is close. The Jayhawks are 4-1 in the Big 12 but have only beaten Texas and Baylor by a combined seven points in their last two outings.
Kansas should still be expected to win the Big 12. But these three schools have a shot to end one of the craziest streaks in college basketball.
The Red Raiders are the Jayhawks’ stiffest competition. Texas Tech is ranked ahead of Kansas in the NET rankings and KenPom, though Kansas is one spot ahead in the AP Poll.
They’ll face each other twice, the first time Feb. 2. The Red Raiders are 15-1, 4-0 in the Big 12 and have the nation’s best defense. Their only loss came to Duke, and they were competitive. The conference player of the year race will come down to Dedric Lawson and Jarrett Culver; consider this writer to be in the Culver camp. Lawson is an awesome scorer and rebounder, but Culver is dynamite on both ends. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists and is an ace defender. Culver does everything.
It’s fair to be concerned about Texas Tech’s offense. It ranks 94th on that end, per KenPom, and doesn’t have much to hang its hat on outside of Culver. The best college basketball teams are balanced.
But it’s hard to argue with Texas Tech’s resume, and the defense has been special. Opponents shoot 25.4 percent from 3 and 39.1 percent from 2 against the Red Raiders while turning the ball over on 24.6 percent of possessions. It’s 2019. Those look like numbers from a different era.
The Red Raiders have the best shot to dethrone the Jayhawks. Monitor them the rest of the way.
There was a stronger case for this about 10 days ago. Kansas beat Iowa State 77-60 on Jan. 5, improving to 12-2 on the season and 2-0 in conference. The Cyclones have dropped two straight to Baylor and Kansas State since then, but they’re still a really good team.
There’s proof Iowa State can beat Kansas handily in an individual game. But the Jayhawks get caught a few times each year; consistency is what’s made this run so special. They’re prone to a clunker or two, but they never let things spiral. Texas Tech may be a more likely school to match that consistency, but Iowa State is probably the No. 3 team in the league.
ISU is balanced. They have top-30 units on both ends and their backcourt is better than Kansas’. Talen Horton-Tucker and Marial Shayok combine to average 31.6 points per game, and Lindell Wigginton is still finding his footing. He should progress with the season and is the X-factor here. If Wigginton can approach the heights he did last season, the Cyclones will have a high ceiling. High enough to outlast Kansas.
Iowa State will probably need to win at Phog Allen on Jan. 21 in order to become a serious contender, but the Cyclones know they can play with the Jayhawks. Tune into that game.
Oklahoma is one of the most surprising teams in the country this year. It lost Trae Young, and it didn’t seem to have the firepower to replace him.
In some ways, it hasn’t. The offense was better last year. But the defense is way better in 2018-19; the Sooners rank ninth on that side. Oklahoma has completely reshaped its identity, and it’s worked. The Sooners are 13-3.
They’re off to a 2-2 conference start, though the two losses are to Kansas and Texas Tech. That tells you Oklahoma is good, but perhaps doesn’t have the starpower to dominate anyone.
But there’s power in winning the games you’re supposed to win. The Sooners lost to the two best squads in the Big 12 on the road, and were competitive in both games. The worst part of their schedule is behind them.
Christian James, Brady Manek, Kristian Doolittle and the rest of the Sooners deserve a ton of credit for this start. It’s unlikely they’ll dethrone Kansas, but there’s something to be said for the fact that Oklahoma’s defense is the best unit either team has. Keep an eye on OU.