Ready or not, things are getting real for two of the Big 12’s best teams Thursday.
Chances are, No. 5 Kansas and No. 14 Texas Tech will be plenty ready.
The Jayhawks begin a tricky two-game pre-Christmas stretch with a road trip to Lubbock to take on the Red Raiders, the earliest Big 12 opener for either team since the conference formed 24 years ago.
Kansas (6-1) and Texas Tech (6-1) are two of the league’s five ranked teams and, because of a COVID-19 cancellation, their matchup is the only opener pitting two such teams against each other.
With a game vs. West Virginia up next on Dec. 22, Kansas, which won the 2020 conference championship and has claimed 15 of the last 16, is the lone Big 12 team that starts with two ranked foes.
Texas Tech is at Oklahoma that night.
For now, though, both teams’ full attention is on the task at hand.
The Red Raiders may be as talented and deeper than any team in fifth-year coach Chris Beard’s tenure. Two transfers are playing major roles: Mac McClung leads Texas Tech with 14.1 points a game, while Marcus Santos-Silva is scoring 8.1 points a contest and leads the team with 7.6 rebounds a game. Terrance Shannon Jr. (11.8 points per game/4.7 rebound per game) and Kyler Edwards (11.3 points per game, team-high 25 assists) are also off to strong starts.
“To me it’s a typical Tech team that we’ve seen the last few years,” Jayhawks’ coach Bill Self said. “They really defend, they play great motion offense, everybody can pass and moves well without the ball and their guys are interchangeable enough that they are tough to match up with.”
Not surprisingly, Beard was similarly effusive when talking about KU. He and Self have established a strong rapport through information exchange and common friendships, and their teams play with similar tenacity and commitment to defense.
The Jayhawks’ lone loss this season was a 102-90 decision to No. 1-ranked Gonzaga on Thanksgiving. Since then, Kansas has reeled off a six-game winning streak with victories against St. Joseph’s and top-10 (at the time) opponents Kentucky and Creighton.
Jalen Wilson paces KU with 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. Ochai Agbaji is supplying 14.1 points an outing and shooting at a 45.9% clip (17 of 37) from 3-point range.
But it’s Kansas’ defense that has Beard’s attention.
“This is a really good defensive team,” said Beard, whose Red Raiders lead the Big 12 in field-goal defense (allowing opponents to shoot only 35.5 percent) and scoring defense (allowing 51.6 points per game). “All Kansas teams are, but this one has something special going on. They have multiple players who impact the game with steals, they’ve got rim protection, they’ve got the ability to switch.
“They have four, maybe five, NBA players in their starting lineup, and there’s no drop-off from the starting five. This is one of Coach Self’s deepest teams.”
The Jayhawks have won six of the last eight meetings, but one was a rare loss in Lawrence and another was a 29-point blowout. The two games last year were settled by a total of seven points, making four games in the last eight between the teams decided by four points or fewer.
“Chris always comes up with something a little unique to try to surprise you,” Self said. “I really like their team. They are one of four or five teams in our league that could beat anybody in the country.”
–Field Level Media