Can anyone catch Kansas? It seems unfathomable that we’re asking this question for the 10th year in a row (especially given how the non-conference season played out), but now more than halfway through the Big 12 season, and following a loss by Texas this weekend, the Jayhawks have given themselves a clear advantage over every other team in the conference. That said, it’s not a bygone conclusion; not yet at least. The Big 12 is still the best conference in the country based on RPI ranking, and there are at least four other teams in the thick of the conference race, three of whom have another head-to-head shot against the Jayhawks. Does anyone have a chance?
One statistic that is important to note: In the history of the Big 12 conference, no team has ever won or shared the Big 12 regular season conference title with more than four losses. In fact, the closest the conference race has ever come to a five-loss champion was last year, when Kansas and Kansas State shared the title with four losses each. By this measure we can effectively eliminate five teams:
TCU (0-10) – The Horned Frogs have yet to win a conference game.
Baylor (2-8) – In typical Scott Drew fashion, Baylor has underwhelmed to the point that they will need to win the Big 12 Tournament to make it into the NCAA Tournament.
Texas Tech (4-6) – Despite playing at a slightly higher level recently, they have too many losses to crawl back up the rankings.
Oklahoma State (4-6) – The biggest disappointment in the conference. Travis Ford’s team is imploding right in front of our eyes, losing five of their last six games, and now dealing with issues revolving around star guard Marcus Smart, who shoved a fan in the waning minutes of Saturday’s loss to Texas Tech (and will now face a three game suspension).
West Virginia (6-5) – The Mountaineers are playing their best basketball of the season and will continue to be dangerous against higher-ranked teams, but losing to Kansas on Saturday dropped them to five losses, and there are simply too many teams above them to overcome the deficit.
That leaves us with the other four teams: Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Kansas State. At this point in the season, the primary way for any of them to catch Kansas will be to gain a win at the same time Kansas gains a loss, meaning they need to beat the Jayhawks head-to-head. For this reason, we can eliminate Iowa State from the group, as they have already lost to Kansas twice and have a difficult remaining schedule (two games against streaking West Virginia, a game at Kansas State, and home games against Texas and Oklahoma State). From here, we’re really only looking at three teams with a chance:
Kansas State (6-4) – Basically, the Wildcats’ entire season boils down to the home game against Kansas on Monday night. If they win, that drops Kansas to two losses and pulls the Wildcats within two games of the conference. They would need to win out and hope Kansas loses two more games, which isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. But with two games against Baylor, and road games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the path to their second straight conference title won’t be easy. If they lose to Kansas on Monday, it’s over.
Oklahoma (7-4) – The Sooners are at more of a disadvantage, simply because they have already lost to Kansas on their home court (the opening game of the Jayhawks’ conference season has proved to be a much bigger win than initially suspected). They too will need to win out (including a road game against in-state rival Oklahoma State and home games against Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia) on top of beating Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. Ouch….
Texas (7-3) – Realistically, the Longhorns have the best chance to disappoint Jayhawk fans. For starters, they are the only team that has done what they need to do so far: Beat Kansas, which they did quite convincingly in Austin. Also, outside of playing Kansas on the road, their remaining schedule isn’t all that difficult. Road games against Iowa State and Oklahoma could give them trouble, but home games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia are winnable. If they win out, it’s entirely possible they could finish with a better record than KU, though the beating they took against Kansas State did not help their chances.
The unfortunate actuality all these teams have in common is that, regardless of what games they win, they also have to rely on Kansas losing a few. The problem with that is, as Kansas has shown nine years in a row, Bill Self has an impeccable ability to win the games he is supposed to win. Assuming Kansas wins all their remaining home games, that will drop Texas to four losses. From there, they would only have to win two of their remaining four road games to win the title outright. If Kansas beats Kansas State on Monday, other teams will have to rely on an upset (possibly a loss to Texas Tech on the road) or a stunning home loss (Texas or Oklahoma); again, not impossible, just not very likely.
The irony of all of this is that the game we all had circled on our calendars at the beginning of the season may prove to be the most meaningless: Kansas vs. Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Not that Oklahoma State couldn’t summon a great performance and beat Kansas, but by that point the conference race may very likely be decided. What we thought would be a pivotal game to determine the best team in the Big 12 conference could actually be the Jayhawks trying to win a tough road game against a desperate team looking for a signature win to get them an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The bottom line is, Kansas is on their way to an unthinkable 10th straight Big 12 title, and other teams will have to muster incredible performances to take them down. Just like every other year at Kansas, they will be getting everyone’s best shot every time they step on the court. And for a few other teams, it’s kind of like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…..”