The Jackson 5
The Big 12 standings as a whole tightened this week as Baylor and West Virginia each lost close on the road. The gap from second place to ninth place now sits at four and a half games, with only two teams in the conference out of the postseason picture in Oklahoma and Texas. One thing did become a little clearer this week, as Kansas now has a two-game lead on Baylor for first place in the conference after their undefeated week. Even with that lead, the title is far from clinched as Kansas has some very important games the rest of the way. They’re in a very good position though, and they can thank their phenomenal freshman (and this week’s player of the week) for that.
Player of the Week
Josh Jackson, Kansas
It’s no coincidence that I find myself talking about Josh Jackson every week. Once again Jackson appears in a positive light in our weekly recap, this time as player of the week Jackson once again played a huge role in an undefeated week for Kansas, one which featured two very hard-fought battles. First up was a high scoring thriller against Texas Tech. Jackson took over the game offensively, scoring roughly 39 percent of the Jayhawks points, with 31. He made 12 of his 15 field goals, including two of his four attempts from beyond the arc. Not to mention, he added 11 rebounds and four assists to his stat line. The big thing for Jackson against the Red Raiders was his free throw shooting. He made five of seven free throw attempts (small sample size, I know) which put him at 71.4 percent in the game, a large improvement over his 55.2 percent at the free throw line on the year. Jackson followed that by making six of his eight free throw attempts in an absolute war with West Virginia, which is hopefully a sign that he may be genuinely improving from the stripe. He did struggle mildly on offense facing the Mountaineers, but still contributed 14 points and another 11 rebounds. His main contribution came on the defensive end, where he tallied a team high five steals in the Jayhawks’ close victory. Jackson is improving at an increasingly high rate. It’s as if every time I mention a weakness, he improves upon it the following week. If Kansas continues to win, and he tightens up his free throw shooting, Jackson may find himself here again next week.
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
Keenan Evans had quite the week for himself, lighting up the scoreboard in three separate contests for Texas Tech. Evans and the Red Raiders only won one of their three games, but it very easily could have been an undefeated week, as they to both Kansas and TCU by a single point. Evans did his part in all three games this week, scoring 20 against TCU, 25 against Kansas, and 23 in the Red Raiders’ victory over Baylor. The most impressive stat from Evans was his shooting from beyond the arc where he made nine of his 12 attempts. Evans is no stranger to lights-out shooting, as he’s shooting 46.1 percent from three on the year, good for second in the Big 12. He will have another opportunity to impress this week, as the Red Raiders travel to Morgantown to take on West Virginia. If they want to make the NCAA Tournament, that game may be a must win for Texas Tech, as they look to overcome their horrifically bad non-conference resume.
The Oklahoma Sooners were always going to have a difficult time replicating last year’s team without the scoring ability of Buddy Hield, but I don’t know if anyone could have seen this coming. The Sooners sit at the bottom of the Big 12 with two wins and 10 losses and an 8-16 record on the season. This week they took two losses to West Virginia and Iowa State to bring their losing streak to seven games. The Sooners haven’t won since January 18th, when they beat West Virginia in Morgantown. That victory becomes even more surprising as the season moves on. The Sooners best chance to win another game will come this week when they take on the Texas Longhorns in the Red River Rivalry on Valentine’s Day. They will do so without leading scorer Jordan Woodard, who suffered a torn ACL and is now out for the season, making a bad situation even worse. Regardless of the outcome of that game, this season has been a colossal disappointment for Coach Lon Kruger and the Sooners.
Oklahoma wasn’t the only team to struggle this week. Kansas State’s tournament seeding took a hit this week with their loss to West Virginia. The Wildcats have lost five of their last six in the toughest stretch of their schedule, including two of their last three against the top three teams in the conference. This week’s loss comes with a caveat, with one of the Wildcats’ senior leaders, DJ Johnson, not playing against the Mountaineers. His absence allowed West Virginia to dominate Kansas State, 85-66. The Wildcats need to get back on track if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. Winning half of their remaining six games could do the trick for the Wildcats, who boast two big time wins, at home against West Virginia, and on the road at Baylor. At this point, three wins is very attainable given their schedule, but they will need to play better basketball if they want to achieve it. One big advantage for Kansas State? They do not play Baylor, Kansas, or West Virginia the rest of the regular season.
Top Five Conference-Deciding Games
With every team in the conference only having five or six games left in the regular season, this is the best time to take a look ahead and see where the conference will be decided. Realistically, only Baylor, Kansas, and West Virginia have a shot to win the conference title, and some would argue that even West Virginia is out of the picture with their loss to Kansas. I would agree, but I see three games for Kansas that could end in a loss, all three of which make our list.
5. Baylor at Texas - 3/4
4. Kansas at Oklahoma State - 3/4
Our first two matchups are on the list for the same reason: they take place on the final day of conference play. There’s a decent chance that Baylor and Kansas come into the day separated by only one game in the standings. With Kansas having a difficult matchup in Stillwater against the Cowboys, Baylor could be favored to win the title if they can find a way to come into March 4th tied in the standings. A win over Texas isn’t a given, but at that point the Longhorns will almost assuredly be playing for nothing more than pride when they take on the Bears. The Jayhawks’ matchup with Oklahoma State is the last of the three games that I could see them losing.
3. TCU at Kansas- 2/22
This game is the big one for West Virginia. If they want any chance to share the conference title, the Mountaineers will need TCU to go into the Phog and take down the Jayhawks on their home court. With a win, Kansas can essentially eliminate the Mountaineers and make it a two-team race for the title. If TCU wins, West Virginia is right back in the picture, with their biggest game of the year looming beyond their own matchup with TCU.
2. West Virginia at Baylor - 2/27
If TCU knocks off Kansas, the Mountaineers will still be fighting for the title when they roll into Waco to face the Bears. Of course, with a loss at any point the Mountaineers are all but out of it, and this game becomes more important for Baylor than anyone else. This game is also big for the Jayhawks, because a Mountaineer win should guarantee them at least a share of the regular season title. A Baylor win and they are still fighting, hoping for some help from Kansas to give them a chance at an outright regular season championship.
1. Kansas at Baylor 2/18
Naturally, none of the other four games mean anything if Kansas takes down Baylor this weekend. This game means everything to both teams on the floor and West Virginia. A Baylor win and the Bears are one game back of the Jayhawks with a real chance to stake at least a partial claim to the title by the season’s end. West Virginia would then be in a position to win a share as well, with the hopes that this loss would send Kansas into a tailspin. If Kansas wins, it’s over. With only four games left, they would have a four-game lead over West Virginia, a three-game lead over Baylor, and they wouldn’t have to face either the rest of the way. That isn’t the kind of lead that a Bill Self team gives up.