Landen Lucas hit two free throws with 11.5 seconds left to cap a game-ending, 8-0 run as No. 3 Kansas all-but clinched the outright Big 12 regular season title in Waco on Saturday, winning 67-65.
Frank Mason III played one of his best games of the season, finishing with 23 points and eight assists, consistently getting to the foul line on an afternoon where the rest of the Jayhawks roster wasn’t scoring the ball all that effectively. He was 7-for-12 from the floor and 8-for-8 from the charity stripe.
Johnathan Motley had 19 points, nine boards and four assists for the Bears, but he finished just 8-for-21 from the floor with six turnovers. Lucas, who had eight points, eight boards (seven offensive) and three blocks on the afternoon while playing 31 minutes with four fouls, did an excellent job of keeping the Baylor all-american in check.
With the win, Kansas moved three full games in front of Baylor for first place in the Big 12 with four games remaining, meaning that the Jayhawks have all-but locked up their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title.
1. If Baylor can’t beat Kansas at home, just how worried should we be about the Jayhawk front line?: I’m not sure there is a title contender that relies on more heavily on pounding the rock into the big boys on their front line more than Baylor does. Wisconsin might. Maybe Purdue, as well. Ethan Happ and Caleb Swanigan are Player of the Year candidates and they are decidedly low-post threats, but Baylor is right there in that conversation.
There’s a reason that Motley is Baylor’s all-american candidate. That’s who Scott wants to get the ball to, and we saw it on Saturday. He took 21 shots, he had four assists and he had six turnovers. Factoring in offensive rebounds and free throws, that’s roughly 30 of Baylor’s 65 possessions, or 46.2 percent, that Motley had a hand in.
In theory, that would be a bad sign for Kansas, right? We all know the issue with this team: Lucas is the only big man on the roster that is ready for the level of basketball that we saw on Saturday. Carlton Bragg Jr. may be, but playing him at the five, totally out of position, has hurt his confidence enough as it is. Dwight Coleby may or may not actually be healthy. Mitch Lightfoot is young. Udoka Azubuike’s season is over. And yet, it was Lucas who was the most impressive big man on the floor. His ability to wall up and defend without fouling while also getting to the offensive glass – again, without fouling – is the difference between Kansas being good and Kansas being disappointing.
Which brings me back to the initial point: If Kansas isn’t affected by their lack on interior depth playing on the road against a top five team, when are they going to be affected by their lack of interior depth?
Yes, I know, Kansas is one sprained ankle or a couple of bad whistles away from being without Lucas, but it’s not like you can plan for that. They’re probably screwed if Mason or Josh Jackson sprains an ankle in the tournament just like UCLA is screwed if Lonzo Ball twists an ankle and Kentucky is screwed if Malik Monk fouls out of a game with 10 minutes left.
As far as the things that you can plan for, Kansas looks better than fine.
2. Kansas is the most battle-tested team in America: The Jayhawks have won 12 games in the Big 12. Nine of them are by seven points or less. Seven are by five points or less. They came from 14 points down in the final three minutes to beat West Virginia. They won at Baylor in a game they trailed by 12. They beat Kentucky on the road by six points. They beat Duke by two. They lost to Indiana in overtime.
Some of that is luck – Svi’s travel against Kansas State, the legal illegal screen at Texas Tech – but a lot of it is some combination of talent, mental toughness and Bill Self. The bottom-line is this: No one will be more prepared to handle a close game in March than Kansas because no one has been through more this season than the Jayhawks.
3. Turnovers, transition defense killed Baylor: That’s where this game was lost. The Bears were up by 12 late in the first half and had control of the game early in the second half, but six turnovers in the first ten minutes of the second half helped turn things around. At one point, Kansas went on an 11-0 run to turn a six-point deficit into a five-point lead, and that run was almost entirely a result of the Kansas transition game.
Turnovers have been an issue for this team all season long, which is what happens when your starting point guard is a converted shooting guard. On the season, Baylor ranks 287th nationally in turnover percentage, and on Saturday, they turned the ball over on 16 of their 65 possessions, just under 25 percent.
4. Scott Drew probably got the last play wrong, which is why people make ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes: I don’t know what was drawn up on the final possession by Baylor. I wasn’t in the huddle. What I do know, however, is that after Drew called a timeout with 8.5 seconds left to draw up a play, the ball ended up in Manu Lecomte’s hands.
Lecomte has been one of the more clutch players in the country this season, but today was different because Lecomte had hurt his leg earlier in the game and did not have much burst. He was limping around on defense and sent two jumpers careening off the back board earlier in the half. The final possession of the game ended up with Lecomte taking an off-balance 18-footer between two Kansas defenders, a shot that never really had a chance.
It’s plays like that that get people making jokes about Drew and his ability to coach, which isn’t entirely fair. Everyone gets it wrong from time to time, especially when Bill Self is the man on the other sideline, and it doesn’t take into account the fact that the Jayhawk defense took Baylor out of what they wanted to do. He’s a favorite for National Coach of the Year, but people still make those same, played out, can’t coach jokes. If you’re wondering why, there you go.
5. 13 straight Big 12 titles: It’s not officially official yet, but it’s done.
There are going to be kids heading to high school next year that have never known a world where Kansas hasn’t won the Big 12 regular season title.