One thing has stayed the same for Kansas the last three seasons, as the Jayhawks have been the team holding the trophy at the end of the Big 12 tournament each time - including last season, when they went on to win the national championship.
But as it begins pursuit of a fourth straight crown, there will be five major differences for coach Bill Self’s 11th-ranked team.
Top-seeded Kansas will have a completely different starting lineup from the one that won last year’s conference title when it takes on Baylor in the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon in Oklahoma City.
Plenty of uncertainty surrounded the Jayhawks (25-6) going into this season after they lost all five starters—and five NBA draft picks—on the heels of their first NCAA title since 1988.
But they’ve had another successful season, clinching the outright Big 12 regular-season title with Saturday’s 83-73 win over Texas.
Junior Sherron Collins and sophomore Cole Aldrich, two reserves from last season’s team, have stepped into leading roles, and Collins had 21 points while Aldrich notched his 18th double-double against the Longhorns.
“I told my guys after the game: we’ve had a good year,” Self said. “We can’t take a good year away from this team, but in order for this to be a great or special year, we’ve got to play really well from this point forward.”
That starts with a bid for another Big 12 title, with the team carrying a nine-game winning streak in conference tournament play into Thursday.
But even though the Jayhawks earned the top seed with their 14-2 record in conference play, they may not be the favorites in Oklahoma City after spending much of the season chasing No. 6 Oklahoma, which will be playing near the Sooners’ Norman campus.
“The last two years the motivation was that we were supposed to win it, we were the favorite and that’s what favorites are supposed to do,” Collins said. “This year our motivation is that no one expects us to win.”
First, however, Kansas will have to get by a team it is expected to beat in ninth-seeded Baylor, which had lost seven of eight in the Big 12 tournament before defeating Nebraska 65-49 in the first round Wednesday.
The Bears (18-13) got 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting from senior guard Curtis Jerrells and a career-high 20 rebounds from senior Kevin Rogers as they dominated the Cornhuskers on the glass, 43-18. They also held Nebraska to 31.5 percent shooting.
Baylor and Kansas were picked to tie for third in the Big 12 in the conference’s preseason coaches poll, but the Bears finished the regular season with 10 losses in their last 12 games, allowing opponents to shoot 48.1 percent from the field over that span.
“I think when you are struggling in conference, it is kind of like a weight vest,” coach Scott Drew said. “… I think the conference tournament, you’re able to take the vest off and you feel better.”
The Bears will be looking for their second win in school history against Kansas and first since Feb. 12, 2001, as they’ve dropped eight straight in the series, including 75-65 at home Feb. 2. The teams have never met in the league tournament.
Still, Baylor boasts a talented backcourt with seniors Jerrells and Henry Dugat and sophomore reserve LaceDarius Dunn. The trio average 41.7 points.
“They have good enough scorers that they can beat anybody,” Self said. “This is their NCAA tournament, I’m sure they’re putting all their eggs in this basket.”
The winner of this game will face Kansas State or Texas in the semifinals Friday.
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