If the streak is going to end, if the one certainty in college basketball — that Kansas will win the Big 12 regular season title — is no longer guaranteed, this is the year for it.
For the first time since Bill Self inherited the Kansas program from Roy Williams back in 2003, Kansas lost four Big 12 games before Feb. 23rd after they fell at Baylor, 80-64. Hell, they’ve only done this five times in the previous 14 seasons. They’ve never lost more than five Big 12 games with Self as their head coach. It’s also the first time that Self lost three games in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in one year, the first time that two of those losses came by double-figures and, if things hold, the first time since the run of Big 12 titles started that Kansas will finish the season ranked as low as 15th in KenPom.
Put another way, this is as beatable as Kansas as ever been under Self.
But they’ve been beatable before. There just hasn’t been anyone in the league good enough to, you know, beat them, to take the Big 12 regular season title for their own.
In 2006, after beating Kansas by 25 points to take over sole possession of first place in the Big 12 by a game, Texas turned around and lost at Texas A&M their next time out. Kansas shared the title. In 2008, holding a one game lead in the Big 12 race with just three games remaining, Texas lost at Texas Tech, sharing another league title with the Jayhawks. In 2013, Kansas State entered the final Saturday of the regular season tied for first place with Kansas, but on a day where Baylor blew out the Jayhawks by 23 points, Kansas State couldn’t find a way to win at Oklahoma State. Again, they shared the title. Iowa State had a chance in 2015, but they lost two of their last four games of the regular season, and Kansas would eventually win the league title outright despite losing five Big 12 games that season.
Which begs the question: Is No. 7 Texas Tech actually good enough to be the team that gets this done?
We know it’s not going to be Oklahoma. The Sooners have now lost three in a row after they fell at Iowa State on Saturday. They’ve lost six of their last eight games and their last five road games with road trips to Texas Tech and Kansas left on the schedule. West Virginia might have a shot, but they still have to play at Kansas — who beat them in Morgantown — and get Texas Tech again.
So Texas Tech then.
It’s there for the taking, more than it’s ever been there before.
With just three weeks left in the regular season, the Red Raiders currently hold a one game lead on Kansas in the Big 12 standings after they went into Manhattan and snuffed out Kansas State the way closing the vents on a grill snuffs out the last remnants of heat on those coals. The final score was 66-47, and it never felt in doubt. It’s the sixth straight win for Chris Beard’s club, their third straight on the road after losing four of their first five road games.
The Red Raiders seem to have solved the issues they had adjusting to life without Zach Smith, who went down in early January with a broken foot, and as a result they’re playing some of their best hoop of the season.
But here’s the most important part: Texas Tech’s second game against Kansas is in Lubbock, where the Red Raiders have not lost a game all season long. Let’s assume that Kansas loses that game. Let’s assume that one of the toughest teams in college basketball beats up on a Kansas team that has lacked exactly that all year long. Let’s assume that one of the nation’s top three defenses, a team that allows opponents to shoot just 31 percent from three and forces turnovers on 24 percent of their defensive possessions finds a way to keep one of the nation’s most three-point reliant teams from getting hot beyond the arc.
Assuming all that happens, the Jayhawks will have to make up a two-game deficit just to earn a share of the Big 12 title. This is a Kansas team that lost at home to Oklahoma State. This is a Kansas team that lost by 16 points to Baylor, who entered Saturday in last place in the Big 12. They play West Virginia and Oklahoma and Iowa State’s Hilton Magic before they even face off with Texas Tech.
Considering where Chris Beard was six years ago — coaching an expansion ABA franchise that didn’t have a single player on the roster when he was hired in late July — it’s remarkable that he has gotten Texas Tech to this place in just his second season with the program.
But none of that will matter if Beard and Texas Tech cannot finish the job.
And for once, I think we finally have found a team that will be up to that task.