Around the Big 12: Kansas inching closer to 10th straight Big 12 title

Jamie Squire

A win over Texas would put Kansas up three games on the rest of the conference with four games to play.

Kansas can't clinch their 10th consecutive regular-season Big 12 title with a win at home against Texas on Saturday, but the Jayhawks can put a fair amount of distance between themselves and the field. With a win, no team would be less than three games behind Bill Self's squad. With only four games remaining on their schedule, the Kinko's in Lawrence could perhaps start printing that banner that will adorn Allen Fieldhouse.

The Jayhawks' run hasn't come without its doubts. Early in the season, both Oklahoma State and Baylor were playing well enough to make people question the assumption that Kansas would win again. Iowa State won its first 14 games before taking a tumble down the rankings. All of this while Kansas held losses to unranked Colorado, Villanova and No. 19 Florida.

Looking back, 'Nova has been a mainstay in the Top 10, Colorado was a beast at home before Spencer Dinwiddie got hurt and Florida is getting buzz as the best team in the country. The Jayhawks have lost at home just once this season, a close game against then-No. 21 San Diego State. The Aztecs are now the sixth-ranked team in the country. Kansas has played its most brutal schedule in recent memory.

Kansas has had eight games against the current AP Top 25, going 4-4 in the process. However, the Jayhawks are 3-1 in those games since conference play started, creating that gap between themselves and the other elite Big 12 squads.

Going forward, there is no question that Bill Self will enter the NCAA Tournament with one of the most accomplished and talented teams in the country. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are among the best freshmen to ever grace the program, and they will be lottery picks in June's NBA Draft. But there are some concerns about how this team will fare in a single-elimination format.

Wiggins, who leads the team with 16.2 points per game, looked lost against Texas in front of a hostile crowd. The Canadian-born freshman was 2-12 from the field for seven points before fouling out. He has been locked in since, however, scoring at least 14 points in Kansas' last five games. The Jayhawks won all five.

Embiid is the leader on the other end of the floor, preventing dribble-drives with his incredible shot-blocking ability. But the big man has a tendency to get in foul trouble, racking up at least four fouls in 15 of his team's 25 games. Embiid has fouled out on four occasions this season, including the losses to Villanova and Colorado. In the tournament format, one hiccup from the seven-footer could send Kansas packing.

If everything goes smoothly to finish the regular season, the Jayhawks should settle in as a 2-seed in the Big Dance. While Kansas has proven it can rack up wins against tough opponents, there are some potential weaknesses in the games of its otherwise talented freshmen. While the Big 12 title is looking like a lock, a Final Four bid certainly isn't.

Power Rankings: Florida steals top spot

Three questions with Rock Chalk Talk's Andy Mitts

Do you feel Kansas' AP ranking reflects the difficulty of its schedule?

Not entirely, but definitely to some degree. To be clear, polls are a combination of 3 factors: measure of talent, who have you beat/lost to, and what have you done lately. Kansas started the year high because of the talent that they had. Generally, voters tend to keep teams they feel are more talented towards the top until the results force them to downgrade that particular team. In any normal year, a team that has lost 6 games would likely have lost a headscratcher or two that would weigh them down in the polls.

However, Kansas doesn't even really have many of those games on their schedule, with nearly every opponent a quality one. Every single one of their losses came on the road and/or to a top-10 caliber team, and even then, they were really only completely blown out against a hot Texas team in Austin.

Essentially, our talent started us up towards the top of the polls, our difficult schedule mitigated the effect the losses had on our ranking, and the timing of those losses gave us plenty of time to work our way back up to the top of the polls.

How important is Naadir Tharpe to this team? He's had some big games recently.

Extremely important. In most games that Kansas has looked dominant, he has been effective with the ball, either scoring big or getting big assists. He's struggled in the last few games, and they ended up being a lot closer than they really should have been.

We knew coming into the year that the key to our season was going to be whether Tharpe could turn into a reliable PG. While he was a solid backup last year, he tended to take way too many ill-advised shots, just trying to make something happen. Recently, he has looked to set up the offense more, and his shots have been in the general flow of the offense. The improved shot selection has definitely reflected positively in his stats, even if there isn't necessarily a huge drop-off when Mason comes into the game.

Now in the stretch run of the season, Tharpe's leadership is going to be crucial to how this team reacts to the challenges coming up in the final push for the conference title and in the tournament.

Which player sets the tone for the Jayhawks: Embiid, Wiggins, both or neither?

Can I say all of the above? The truth is that we don't really have one guy that sets the tone for the entire team. I'd have to take Wiggins off the list, because it seems that he gets his at some point in the game, but it usually doesn't show up early unless someone else is feeding him.

If the opponent likes to play down low, Embiid sets the tone with his defense, as his ability to stay out of foul trouble essentially decides how successful the opponent will be. While Traylor and Black are serviceable replacements, they in no way can replicate what Embiid is able to do on defense.

Offensively, I'd have to go with Perry Ellis. His success early in the game seems to open up opportunities for others, and the others can feed off of his energy. However, if he starts in a funk, it can take a while for Kansas to find consistent scoring, either by finding a different hot hand, or getting Ellis going later in the game.

Three big games

Texas at Kansas (Saturday): If the Longhorns have any chance at catching Kansas for the regular-season title, it has to start Saturday in Lawrence. Texas wiped the floor with Kansas in their first meeting in Austin, but haven't been the same team away from the Erwin Center.

Iowa State at TCU (Saturday): The Cyclones have a pair of winnable games next week, facing winless TCU and getting West Virginia at home. The two teams ahead of Fred Hoiberg's team -- Kansas and Texas -- will play each other Saturday. Iowa State will almost surely gain ground on one of them in the conference standings.

Oklahoma at Kansas (Monday): A second tough game in three days for the Jayhawks, who are tying to hold off Texas and ISU to win their 10th straight regular-season Big 12 title. Fortunately, both games are in the friendly confines of Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas is undefeated against the Sooners in the Phog in this millennium.

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