Fans can argue whether Villanova, Virginia or Purdue is the best team in college basketball, but there seems to be no doubt which conference stands above the rest.
The Big 12 is widely regarded as the toughest, deepest, most competitive men’s basketball conference in the country from top to bottom.
Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas are all ranked in the Associated Press top 10. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, who has coached more than 1,100 college games, said he’s never coached in a stronger league.
“It’s the hardest league I’ve ever coached in, and I’ve been in leagues with really good coaches and players,” Huggins said. “There’s no bottom, you just don’t have a bottom. Every team in this league is really good and really well coached.”
But as powerful and balanced as the league has been this season, the team at the top is the same as in 2005 and every year since then: Bill Self’s Jayhawks.
The Jayhawks have looked vulnerable at times, they don’t have a lot of big men, and play with a short rotation. They’ve lost twice at Allen Fieldhouse this season, a place where Self has compiled a 229-12 record over the last 15 seasons.
After a 95-85 loss to Arizona State on Dec. 10, the Jayhawks lost 85-73 to then-No. 18 Texas Tech in the Big 12 home opener on Jan. 2. The Red Raiders won their first game at Allen Fieldhouse in 18 attempts while the Jayhawks lost multiple games at home for the first time in 11 years.
It brought on all kinds of doubters who questioned whether Kansas has the team to win its 14th straight Big 12 title, which would match UCLA (1967-79) for the longest conference championship streak in college basketball history.
But since the loss to the Red Raiders, the Jayhawks have reeled off four straight Big 12 wins. They’ve all been by five points or less, but it’s been enough for the Jayhawks to go 5-1 heading into Saturday’s game against Baylor in Lawrence.
The Jayhawks’ most impressive victory during this stretch was Monday’s 71-66 comeback win over West Virginia in Morgantown after trailing by 16 points.
“We haven’t played great but we’ve competed hard,” Self said. “I thought West Virginia controlled the game, but our guys have made plays in late situations and have given us the opportunities to win close games.”
In a league as deep as the Big 12, making one or two key shots or getting some prime defensive stops in the closing minutes have made the difference. That’s why Kansas is leading the Big 12 by a game over Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma. Failing to make those critical plays is the reason good teams like Baylor and No. 24 TCU are 2-4.
This certainly isn’t a dominating Kansas team. Seven-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike is the only major scoring threat in the paint. Surrounding him are four starting guards: Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Legerald Vick and Malik Newman, who are all averaging double-figure scoring.
The Jayhawks’ lack of depth is dramatic. Five-star freshman forward Billy Preston has yet to play after questions have risen about the expensive car he’s driving. Silvio De Sousa, another five-star freshman forward, has become the eighth player in Kansas’ playing rotation in the last two games after he joined the team in December following his mid-year graduation from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Good depth is usually crucial in the grueling Big 12, which plays a double round robin with everybody facing off in conference games home and away. The Jayhawks could be one injury away from self destructing.
With 12 conference games remaining, Self knows the grind the Jayhawks face ahead.
“You have one bad week and you can go from first to fifth or sixth,” Self said. “We understand that, at least the staff does, and we’re trying to get the players to understand. We haven’t talked about trying to win 14 straight (Big 12 titles). We’ve been vulnerable, but I think you can say that just about every year. We’ve been able to rally around each other, and hopefully we can do that this year.”
Possessing great depth, West Virginia or Texas Tech appear to have the best shot to unseat Kansas. Oklahoma relies a great deal on gifted freshman point guard Trae Young, who leads the nation with 29.5 points and 9.8 assists per game. But does he have the stamina to keep playing nearly every minute of every game as the season grinds along?
The Big 12 is so strong that it has a chance to send seven or maybe eight teams to the NCAA tournament. That’s why teams like Baylor, Kansas State, TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State still have a fighting chance.
“What you hear from all the coaches and the media is true: There isn’t a bottom half to this league,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. “Everybody’s good. The real challenge is to put your team in position to win games and improve. To me, the race doesn’t really start until February. Ultimately you want to be playing your best basketball in February and March.”