The streak is still alive.
Devonte’ Graham scored 26 points and made two critical, tough shots in the final minute as No. 8 Kansas clinched a share of the Big 12 title by going into Lubbock and knocking off a shorthanded No. 6 Texas Tech, 74-72.
Svi Mykhailiuk added 21 points for the Jayhawks, who put to rest all the concern that this would be the year that the streak came to an end with a week left in the regular season.
If there was ever going to be a season where the streak came to an end, this looked like it would be the one. Just two weeks ago, after Kansas lost by 16 points at Baylor on the same day that Texas Tech beat Kansas State by 20 in Manhattan, Texas Tech say in the driver’s seat. They were a game up on the Jayhawks with six to play and a home game against Kansas left on the schedule. For a team that was, at the time, ranked in the top six on KenPom, that was a dream scenario, one that was set aflame by an unfortunate case of turf toe.
Keenan Evans, a front runner for Big 12 Player of the Year and by far the best offensive weapon on the Texas Tech roster, landed funny late in the first half of a game at Baylor a week ago Saturday, slamming his toe into the court and severely hobbling himself. He did not play in the second half at Baylor. He did play in the last two games, 56 minutes combined, but he was not the Keenan Evans Big 12 fans have come to know and hate. He shot 2-for-13 from the floor and missed all seven of his threes. He scored eight total points.
The Red Raiders, as you might imagine, lost all three of those games.
And with it, any chance of ending the Jayhawks’ streak and, in turn, becoming one of the best college basketball stories this decade.
All is certainly not lost for Chris Beard’s club.
For starters, Zach Smith is back. You may not know that name because he is a glue guy for a team that is not exactly a blueblood, but he’s one of the most important pieces on that roster. He’s a freak of an athlete at 6-foot-8, a guy that can provide Beard with versatility defensively and energy on the offensive glass. There were people around that program that would tell you the reason they took a swoon early in league play was that Smith got injured.
With him back in the mix, Texas Tech is only going to get stronger defensively, and they are already one of the nation’s five-best defenses. They are not, however, great offensively, which typically would be a concern. The numbers bear it out: It is far more difficult to win a title being an elite defensive team that is just good on the offensive end of the floor than vice versa, but what makes me believe in the Red Raiders is Evans. If anyone can pull a Shabazz or a Kemba in this year’s tournament, it’s a (healthy) Evans.
So don’t stop believing, Lubbock.
As far as Kansas is concerned, what else is there to say about this team by now?
The Big 12 is the best conference in college basketball.
I’m not sure there is really a way to dispute that.
And this iteration of the Jayhawks? They’re not great, at least not when it comes to the way we typically view a Kansas team. They lost Billy Preston to an eligibility issue. They had to enroll Silvio De Sousa a semester early just so they have more than two front court players on their roster. They don’t have anything close to a small-ball four on the roster. They’ve lost in Phog Allen Fieldhouse three times this season, twice by double-digits. Malik Newman has had stretches where he’s been terrible. Same with Lagerald Vick. Marcus Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot took some time to get acclimated to the minutes they were being asked to play.
Despite all of that, Kansas, with two games left in the regular season, has already clinched a share of the conference regular season title.
And as long as they don’t get swept by Oklahoma State at home and at Texas in the final week of the season, they will win yet another outright Big 12 regular season title.
This may very well be the best coaching performance of Bill Self’s career.