It’s the time of year when teams start to lock down NCAA Tournament spots. Regardless of any collapse, combined with the easier games remaining on schedules, college basketball’s elite know when the calendar flips to February that their postseason lives aren’t on the line every night.
Last night’s double-overtime Big 12 Conference shootout between Kansas and Texas Tech was pure evidence of that. Alongside defending national champion Baylor, the Jayhawks and Red Raiders are the league’s best teams. TCU and Texas are a step behind and white-hot starts from Iowa State and Oklahoma State haven’t been sustained, with those teams getting pushed around in conference action.
KU and Tech will both be featured in March Madness. Both are likely to be top-six seeds on Selection Sunday with the quality of talent from both benches. The Jayhawks’ 94-91 victory only props both teams up. Yes, for the Red Raiders it goes down as a loss, but it went into one of the toughest buildings in the country and nearly beat the No. 5 team in the country.
Having covered the return of the Border War, Kansas’ not-so-subtly-named rivalry against Missouri in December, I know how loud Allen Fieldhouse can get. I took Tylenol before tipoff to try and stay focused on writing during the game and avoid a headache while feverishly typing on deadline. It didn’t work to bypass a migraine, but luckily, Kansas scored over 100 and the game was a blowout. Story went up as the buzzer hit zeroes.
I provide that context to make Texas Tech’s effort look spectacular under first-year head coach Mark Adams. Their former head coach, Chris Beard, jumped to coach Texas this past offseason and the two matchups against the Longhorns, the first coming a week from today, must be one of the most anticipated games of the season. Beard will walk back into Lubbock with a worse team than the one currently applying its trade in West Texas. Maybe he’ll at least get Evie Mae’s BBQ while near campus so the trip is guaranteed not to be a complete wash.
Texas Tech nearly walked out of Lawrence with a win despite Terrence Shannon Jr. and Kevin McCullar going a combined 2-for-21 from the field for seven points in 80 combined minutes of action. Kevin Obanor, who transferred to the Red Raiders this season after helping Oral Roberts reach the Sweet 16 last year, and Davion Warren combined for 32 points.
The effort of Bryson Williams almost won Texas Tech the game by itself. The senior went 14-of-19 from the field, including 4-for-4 from 3-point range for a total of 33 points. Add in five rebounds with only two fouls and two turnovers, he’s a player you’ll need to familiarize yourself with over the next few weeks once The Big Dance inches closer.
Williams wasn’t the game’s leading scorer however. The lack of production from some of the Red Raiders’ better players stands out because of the efforts of Naismith Award contender Ochai Agbaji, Kansas’ do-it-all 6-foot-5 senior.
Agbaji is such a quintessential Bill Self centerpiece, it’s ridiculous in a marvelous way for Kansas fans. His 37 points last night propelled KU to victory. He can’t be depended on every night for that kind of production. But it looks beautiful when it happens occasionally. Add in 7-for-12 from beyond the arc, a 13 of 23 mark from the field and seven rebounds for the surefire first-team All-American. He’ll be a can’t-miss player come March.
Kansas’ starting five and true top-eight rotation are national-title good. Where’s the hole? Jalen Wilson and David McCormack are a diverse frontcourt that combine to display an assertive tone around the glass that walks the line between fouling and out-muscling opponents.
Dajuan Harris, who I covered in high school, has only grown his game as one of the country’s elite distributors. His scoring ability probably has the lowest ceiling of any of the Jayhawks starting five. To be fair, the other four all exceed in that area. To make up for his pass-first mentality, he’s the engine that sparks Self’s offense. There won’t be many possessions where Harris doesn’t touch the ball multiple times. Kansas is better with him as the nucleus of its offense.
Rounding out the starting five is Christian Braun. His last name is pronounced Brown. You’re welcome for sounding smart at the water cooler. He played a game-high 49 minutes against Texas Tech. He’s second to Agbaji in minutes played, shots made, shots attempted, 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted for the Jayhawks. Braun also leads the team in blocks. He’s capable of taking over a game if Agbaji has an off night, an underrated element on all elite teams, that next guy who can take over if your superstar is more Clark Kent on any given night.
It’ll be tough for Kansas to remain unblemished through its next four games, starting with taking on Kentucky as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge this weekend. Road games against Iowa State and Texas sandwich a critical home game against Baylor, which should go a long way in determining who wins the conference’s regular-season title.
From 2011-18, the Jayhawks had eight straight seasons making at least the third round of the NCAA Tournament. They haven’t done it since. This squad definitely looks to be the ones to revive that streak.