Bill Self addressed the grueling grind of the Big 12 race with his 2017-18 Kansas Jayhawks after they gathered for practice following a four-day holiday break on Dec. 26.
“Coach (Self) emphasized a lot when we got back (that) it’s basically like a war. We’ve got six teams that are in the top 12 I think is what he said, or something like that,” KU senior guard Devonté Graham said of a 10-team league crowded with ranked teams KU (No. 10 this week), West Virginia (No. 6), Oklahoma (7), TCU (16), Texas Tech (18) and Baylor (No. 18 last week, receiving votes this week).
“Night in and out you’ve got to be prepared. He said you can lose the Big 12 in a week. If you come into a game or two underestimating an opponent, next thing you know you lose two in a row. We’ve got to be prepared night in and out.”
The Jayhawks (11-2), who had three days of practice to prepare for a Texas team (9-4) that also is receiving votes in the Associated Press poll, passed the first league test by downing the Longhorns 92-86 on Friday night in Austin, Texas.
Up next are a pair of ranked squads — Texas Tech at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse and TCU at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I feel like it was here as soon as we got back from being home,” KU forward Mitch Lightfoot said of the always-intense league competition. “Being here now, there’s nobody on campus (during semester break). I remember this time from last year: ‘OK, it’s time to get it rolling’ It was a great way to get it started getting a ‘W’ down at Texas. We’re just going to keep that rolling.”
KU, which last year tied UCLA for all-time consecutive league titles, now vies for an unprecedented 14th consecutive conference crown.
“It starts with Coach,” Lightfoot said of having the proper mental attitude for the pursuit of another league title. “He’s always a pretty intense person. He has a good understanding that it’s time to go. It’s conference season. This is what we do. Let’s take it to the next level. We kind of all have that understanding.
“We kind of all know it’s time to get it done. We’re playing for a lot of people who played before us and represented Kansas with the jersey on before. We are here to continue that tradition and keep it rolling.”
To improve to 2-0 in the Big 12, KU must defeat a Texas Tech team that followed an 11-1 nonconference run with a 77-53 rout of Baylor on Friday in Lubbock, Texas.
The Red Raiders, who beat Northwestern by 36 points and Boston College by 11 (their only nonleague loss was to No. 21 Seton Hall, 89-79), are second in the country in margin of victory at 23.1 points per game. KU is seventh at 20.6.
“That can happen,” Self said of the Baylor result, noting the Bears were without injured Jo-Lual Acuil, while Terry Maston didn’t score after missing the previous six games because of a hand injury. “It’s 29-9 to start the game. It was a beatdown. They (Red Raiders) attacked Baylor’s zone perfectly and they also attacked them (Bears) when they went man. Of course they didn’t let them get comfortable offensively.”
Baylor had one assist the entire game, leading Bears coach Scott Drew to say, “I didn’t think that was possible. It was a combination. I thought we did a bad job coaching and playing and I thought Tech’s defense was good.”
Or as KU coach Self said: “They are the best defensive team we’ve played all year.”
The Red Raiders, who average 81.3 points a game and allow 58.2 (KU averages 87.8 and allows 67.2), have double digit scorers in Keenan Evans (16.6 points per game), Zhaire Smith (10.7) and Jarrett Culver (10.4). Niem Stevenson and Zach Smith are at 8.7 and 7.1, respectively.
“Chris has done a marvelous job in a short amount of time. They are playing fast. They have five guys capable of shooting 40 (percent) from three. And they are really guarding,” Self said of Tech’s second-year coach Chris Beard and his squad.
Self and Beard have known each other a long time.
“He’s my guy,” Self said. “We recruited his juco kids from Fort Scott (Community College, where Beard coached in 1999-2000). We tried to help him with the Seminole job (where he coached in 2000-01); I’ve stayed in close contact with Chris throughout his career. I’m a fan and a friend. I’m happy he’s doing a great job there and he has a great staff, too.”
The Jayhawks, of course, realize protecting home court against Tech — and nine others — will be vital in pursuit of the league crown. KU has won 11 straight league home openers, with its last loss to Kansas State 59-55 on Jan. 14, 2006.
“It’s kind of an understanding-type thing,” Lightfoot said of thoughts of winning the league. “We know it’s there. It’s all about winning games at the end of the day.”