This Big 12 basketball season is exhausting. Every time I look at the schedule, checking the next 2–3 games, there is never a break. Every game comes with a series of questions and perils. There have been years when the top has been better, when you could look at the top 2–4 teams and think they all have a shot to get to the Final Four, but those years also often featured a couple teams at the bottom that everyone could pencil in for wins. I’m not sure if the conference has a true title contender this year – go ahead and queue up the “Big 12 is overrated” conversations when no one makes it to the Elite 8 – but, damn, there are no nights off.
Take KU’s recent schedule, for example. There was the stretch where they played at West Virginia, Texas A&M at home, then at Kansas State in six days. I had serious fears about the Jayhawks going 0–3 in that stretch. Especially when they fell behind by 13 in Morgantown. Instead they went 3–0 in those games, including their first two double-digit wins since December.
After that came the “easy” stretch, where KU would take on Oklahoma State and TCU at home, then travel to Baylor. Because it is 2018 and this is the Big 12, they went 1–2 and were a little fortunate to get that one win. Instead of banking three wins and carrying a lead into the final third of the season, they found themselves looking up at Texas Tech. Was it just three weeks ago KU had a two-game lead on everyone and the national media was proclaiming the conference race over?
Shit happens quick in the Big 12, ya’ll!
KU started another brutal three-game stretch last night in Ames. Despite sitting in 10th place in the conference, Iowa State had already beaten Tech, Oklahoma, and West Virginia at home. The KU game is always their game of the year. And they were in the game in Lawrence last month until about the 2:00 mark, when their young pups all fell apart. Yeah, nothing gimme about this. And with West Virginia and Oklahoma coming to Lawrence over the next week 0–3 was, again, a distinct possibility.
So thank goodness that Lagerald Vick found his mojo for the first time since late December, Udoka Azubuike was un-guardable when he was on the court, Malik Newman filled the gaps left in off nights (again) from Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Devonté Graham, and the Cyclones again showed their youth by launching lots of bad shots all night. Some terrible free throw shooting late made it a ballgame, but KU still escaped with a road win none of the other contenders have.
Of course, they also have two home losses, something Texas Tech does not have, so the win only helps them tread water rather than gain a game.
KU has been here before, down a game with a handful to play. Although I’ve had doubts this time of the year in the past, there was also always that understanding that KU always finds a way to finish strong, while the other contenders always found a way to falter.
Just as I thought in January, I still believe this year is different. I have a hard time believing that KU can close out the year 5–1 with Texas Tech going 4–2 over the same stretch. Tech looks too solid to me to do KU any favors. And 5–1 seems like a big ask for this KU team.
The biggest factor to me is how Devonté Graham is already running on fumes. He’s shot the ball poorly for two weeks, getting worse each game. He’s struggling to finish at the rim. Last night he missed three free throws late. KU’s just asking too much of him, to play 40 minutes every night, going hard on both ends, and always having to be the guy to bail the team out in big moments. It’s amazing he’s still playing as well as he is. He seems solid mentally, but the physical toll is obvious. And it’s not getting better over the next three weeks.
The only way around that is if Svi gets his groove back after three-straight off games, Newman continues to attack the basket, and Vick can hang onto whatever he tapped into last night. A and B seem likely and possible, respectively, but C is another story. Vick got benched a week ago and publicly shamed by Bill Self. Then KU went out and offered a scholarship to a kid that suggested that Vick may not be back next year, perhaps by mutual agreement. I don’t have a ton of confidence he is going to get back to scoring around 10 ppg consistently.
But there’s a lot of ball to be played. Maybe the pressure will get to Tech, KU will get hot, and in 10 days the Jayhawks are back in first. I’m not betting the house on that, but there’s still a shot.