The Kansas basketball team’s quest to capture its 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship begins at Allen Fieldhouse, where the No. 2 Jayhawks (11-1) play host to No. 23 Baylor (10-2).
This afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, KU’s stable of post players will have to either collectively or individually have to figure out a way to deal with massive Baylor power forward Rico Gathers (14.1 points, 11.1 rebounds), an absolute beast on the offensive glass (4.7 offensive boards a game).
KU coach Bill Self was asked earlier this week whether Gathers was a candidate for the Big 12 Player of the Year.
“Yeah, I think he's a candidate, there's no question,” Self said. “Of course, it's too early. I think when those accolades, postseason accolades, my personal opinion, there's too much emphasis put on the whole year, as opposed to conference play. Because to me, there's a big difference in what a guy does playing against the same competition every night and what he does playing against different competition.”
Self added the clear favorite to be the Big 12’s best player at this point is Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield.
Part of Baylor’s success this season has a lot to do with senior guard Lester Medford’s smooth transition to starting point guard. He’s averaging 6.8 assists and rarely turning the ball over.
“I have a hard time believing any team can have that many assists per game,” Self said of Baylor’s nation-leading 22.7 assists average. “You know, it's unbelievable. Like in the last game against Texas Southern, they had 27 baskets and 23 assists. I mean, the numbers are staggering of what they are doing, and Lester is probably the biggest reason why that is. He's off to a fabulous start.”
As much as KU has benefited from Frank Mason’s play at point guard (68 assists, 16 turnovers this season), Self pointed out Medford has had 42 assists against 6 turnovers in BU’s past 5 games.
“That's seven to one, and we talk about Frank being really good at four and a half to one,” Self said. “They haven't skipped a beat with him playing there, at all.”
As KU and Self set out to get the Jayhawks’ 12th straight regular-season Big 12 crown, the coach acknowledged that many outside the program likely take that streak for granted.
“I think our fans do. I think nationally, it has not got the respect in a lot of ways that it deserves,” Self said, “but I also understand that that's -- what gets most of the attention now is what you do in the postseason, as opposed to regular season, and I understand that.”
Self, of course, thinks KU’s Big 12 streak is “pretty remarkable,” considering all the different personnel and varying kinds of teams KU has put on the floor in the past decade-plus.
“I’m real proud of it, but the whole thing is, this will be the hardest year probably to defend it,” Self said. “That last year was a monster year to defend it. But I really think that this year there's more good teams our league has ever had, and when I say good team, I mean teams that have chance to be Final Four-type contenders.”
Regarding KU’s streak of 11 consecutive Big 12 championships, Self also enjoys that expectations never change at KU, even with roster turnover and at times relying on very unexperienced players.
“That's the thing that I probably take the most pride in is that the kids, regardless of who you lost, it's kind of the next man up, and that mantra, they have delivered,” Self said. “So I take great pride in the consistency, because it's hard.”
“I remember, certainly, when we won it in 2008,” Self added, “I thought there would be no way that we would get complacent. There's no way. But human nature just makes it that way. People are asking to do fun things. Everybody's patting you on the back. Instead of being in the gym a week after the season, now it's three weeks after the season because you're worn out from doing all the other stuff. It's hard and now you understand why there's not that many repeats at the professional level and things like that.”
Self said there have yet to be too many surprises for him from this team, as KU embarks on Big 12 play.
“One thing that's been pretty pleasant in my eyes is I think the guys share it,” Self said. “I think we're pretty unselfish for the most part with our thoughts and our play. But the real season hasn't even started yet. Whenever you play games that you can play poorly and still win, you sometimes get a false sense of who you are and what's going on.”
The parity in the Big 12 this season, Self claims, could rival that of the NFL.
“But when you only have ten teams and you play everybody twice, and you could have six or seven teams in the NCAA Tournament,” Self said, “you have to be your best every night, much like I think what you have to be in the NFL. In the NFL, if you don't play well, I lose and I think it's going to be that way in our league more so than ever.”
Headed into the 18-game Big 12 schedule (with a home matchup vs. Kentucky in the middle of it), Self continues to wish the Jayhawks were able to “throw the ball inside and score” more.
“But I also know that we get the ball to the paint and get the ball to the rim a lot more driving it than what we ever have in the past,” Self admitted. “Those kind of off-set each other, but I know in the teeth of a game at crunch time in a big game, you want to be able to get fouled when you throw it inside or come away at the basket.”
Electricity in fieldhouse at a new level today after a lot of relatively boring non-conference games.