Kansas Jayhawks clearly among best

Kansas Jayhawks clearly among best

February 21st, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

The Kansas Jayhawks mascot Big Jay

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

It was the perfect spot for a Kansas cave-in. Still reeling from a gut-wrenching 74-71 loss at Missouri four nights earlier, the Jayhawks found themselves 10 points behind the Baylor Bears midway through the first half as Baylor's fans blew the lid off their home gym.

KU coach Bill Self even went so far as to say, "That was some ugly ball."

But then a beautiful thing happened -- unless you're one of the poor souls on the other end of the Jayhawks' transformation.

In a 10-minute stretch covering the final five minutes of the first half against the Bears and the first five minutes of the second half, KU outscored Baylor 33-7 to lead by 20.

The Jayhawks haven't lost since then on their way to becoming the No. 4 team in the land in the latest Associated Press poll.

"I thought we might pout up and feel a little sorry for ourselves [after the Mizzou loss]," Self said at the close of that 68-54 victory over the then-Top 10 Bears.

"But we didn't. We showed some toughness. You take away three minutes [at the close of the Missouri game] in the last 80, and that's about as good as we've played as a team since I've been at Kansas."

And lest anyone forget, the Jayhawks won the 2008 national championship and are in the hunt for their eighth straight Big 12 regular-season title.

Yet this was supposed to be a rebuilding season. The Morris twins had moved on. So, too, the mercurial point guard Josh Selby. A favorite to win it all at the start of last year's NCAA tournament, Kansas was ranked 13th in this year's preseason poll.

Still, as Kansas State coach Frank Martin lamented after falling on the road by 18 to KU, "They have very good players and they are coached by one of the best."

And as this season has rolled along, both Martin's points are being proven true for a Kansas team that now stands 22-5 overall, No. 6 in RPI and No. 5 in schedule strength.

"Kansas is so good at making you pay for making mistakes," Ohio State coach Thad Matta after his Buckeyes fell by 11 at KU in December, albeit with All-American Jared Sullinger sidelined by injury. "We lost to a great, great team."

Everyone will agree that junior post player Thomas Robinson is a great player, perhaps the best in the country.

He's averaging 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds a game, and many believe he is nearly unstoppable.

"The season's not over," ESPN's Jay Bilas said last week, "but right now I'd have Robinson and [Kentucky's Anthony] Davis as No. 1 and 1-A for player of the year."

Yet the obvious maturity of senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor (16.6 ppg, 5.1 assists) notwithstanding, the biggest key to the Jayhawks making a deep tourney run may be the biggest guy on the team -- 7-foot post player Jeff Withey, who is averaging 11.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in Big 12 action.

"He's seven feet tall with long arms," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said after losing at Kansas. "There are some 7-foot-tall guys with short arms. He's seven feet with long arms and good timing. He's not the most mobile guy, but he understands that and makes up for it."

One other thing Ford liked about Withey: "He fully understands he's playing with the best player in America."

The best measuring stick of how far Kansas can go in the NCAA tournament may come in its rematch tSaturday against Missouri inside Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

With a win Kansas probably would lock up its eighth straight Big 12 crown and a No. 1 seed in March Madness. Even with a loss it still will be far ahead of its preseason expectations.

Oklahoma State's Ford doesn't believe he needs the Missouri rematch to rate the Jayhawks.

"Kansas," he said, "is a Final Four-type team."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.