While the biggest storyline in the Big 12 right now is the inability of Trae Young and Oklahoma to get back to its winning ways, traditional blue blood Kansas is primed to claim its fourteenth consecutive regular-season league crown, which would set an NCAA record that is currently shared with UCLA.
Bill Self’s eighth-ranked Jayhawks (22-6, 11-4 Big 12) are rounding into form at the right time as the conference tournament looms along with Selection Sunday.
Saturday offers the Jayhawks a chance to really put the clamps on the Big 12 regular-season title. With just three games left to play, a road victory over No. 6 Texas Tech (22-6, 10-5) at United Supermarkets Arena would give the Jayhawks a two-game lead over the Red Raiders, ensuring KU gets at least a share of the conference title.
Jayhawks head coach Bill Self knows what’s at stake, but he also understands that nothing is a given.
“The reality of it is if we don’t play well [in Lubbock and clinch a tie], we bring other teams into play — not only Texas Tech, West Virginia, but also K-State’s in the game,” he said during Thursday’s Big 12 coaches’ teleconference. “Certainly we’ve got to do our job. We need to go down there and play our best.”
Kansas will be looking to extend its winning streak to four, and it is coming off of a dominant 104-74 victory over Oklahoma. In that contest, the Jayhawks held Young to a career-low 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting to continue his rough stretch that has essentially put Oklahoma on the bubble. Kansas was led by guard Devonte Graham’s 23 points as all five starters reached double figures in scoring in the win over the Sooners.
A balanced offense will be needed on Saturday against a Red Raiders team that is known for its stout defense. When these teams clashed at Allen Fieldhouse in early January, Texas Tech never trailed en route to an 85-73 win. But the Red Raiders have lost back to back games to Baylor and Oklahoma State — anything but Big 12 powers in 2017-18. And star guard Keenan Evans remains day-to-day due to a toe injury.
Things seem to be aligning well for Kansas in this revenge game.
The Jayhawks and Red Raiders will tip off on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Other games to monitor this weekend:
No. 3 Villanova at Creighton (2:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, FOX)
The Wildcats (25-3, 12-3 Big East) have righted the ship this month after losing two of their first three games. They have won two straight, including a 95-79 win over No. 4 Xavier last week, which completed a season sweep of the Musketeers. Jay Wright’s squad once again controls its own Big East destiny after it appeared that this could be Xavier’s year to upset the status quo in the league.
There is still work to do for ‘Nova, though, as Creighton (19-9, 8-7) would like to make things difficult for a Wildcats squad seeking its fifth straight regular-season championship. However, the Bluejays lost by 20 to Villanova this season and have lost three of their past four. Plus, the Wildcats have guard Phil Booth back from a broken hand.
Syracuse at No. 5 Duke (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)
The Orange (18-10, 7-8 ACC) could really use a resume-boosting win, and what better place to do so than at Cameron Indoor against Duke (23-5, 11-4). The problem is that the Blue Devils are hot and playing their best defense of the season during their four-game winning streak. Senior guard Grayson Allen is playing like his sophomore self again, coming off of a 28-point performance against Louisville on Wednesday, and it was the third time in his last four games that he has recorded at least 20 points.
The Blue Devils are playing very well despite missing star forward Marvin Bagley III, who is averaging 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has not been clear on a timetable for Bagley’s return following his right knee injury. The ACC’s top scorer and rebounder, though, has not been missed too much during this winning streak.
Of course, Duke will want to be at full strength as soon as possible to ready itself for a deep March run. The Orange, meanwhile, are simply looking for some consistency after dropping four of their past seven games. It will be a tall order trying to steal a road win in hostile territory, but at least the Orange may not have to contend with the possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
No. 12 Auburn at Florida (Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET on SEC Network)
What a year for SEC basketball.
The Gators are now clinging to their NCAA Tournament hopes after being ranked in the top five early this season. UF (17-11, 8-7 SEC) desperately needs a marquee victory to move away from the NCAA bubble after dropping three straight, including blowing halftime leads to Georgia and Vanderbilt. There is no better time than on Saturday night when it hosts Auburn (24-4, 12-3), which is seeking its first SEC regular-season title since 1999. The Tigers are one win or a Tennessee loss away from clinching the conference crown, which is something the Gators were supposed to be in the mix for based on preseason expectations. After starting league play at 6-1, they have dropped six of their past eight conference games.
Despite playing at home, UF will have a tough time against an Auburn team that has won three of its last four and bounced back from a bad loss at South Carolina with a win over rival Alabama despite playing short-handed. Tigers guard Jared Harper is averaging 19 points over his last four games, aided by getting to the free-throw line much more frequently.
No. 2 Michigan State at Wisconsin (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS)
The Spartans (27-3, 15-2 Big Ten) head into the regular-season finale looking to clinch the outright Big Ten title for the first time since 2009 and extend their winning streak to 12 games (an Ohio State loss on Friday would also give the Spartans the title outright). Despite the struggles of Wisconsin (14-16, 7-10), which is likely to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, Michigan State will have to end a three-game skid at the Kohl Center.
Tom Izzo’s squad has not been immune to slow starts during this winning streak, although it showed when it rallied from a 27-point deficit on the road against Northwestern last weekend that nothing will stand in its way of a league crown.
When these teams last played, Michigan State took care of business in a 76-61 win in East Lansing. But keep in mind that the Badgers upset then-No. 6 Purdue 57-53 last week.