Three-quarters of the way through Monday night’s showdown between Kansas and West Virginia, it at last appeared safe to predict that this would be the year the field would dethrone the perennial Big 12 champion Jayhawks.
Then Kansas rose up and erased a double-digit deficit, West Virginia wilted on its own home floor and now it’s hard to know what to think again.
A 71-66 road victory over the sixth-ranked Mountaineers has Kansas in a familiar position, alone atop the Big 12 standings. Now a half game up on Texas Tech and Oklahoma and a full game clear of West Virginia, the Jayhawks are in strong position to extend their record-setting streak to 14 straight years of winning at least a share of the Big 12 title.
It’s fair to wonder whether the rest of the Big 12 will ever unseat Kansas if the Jayhawks find a way to finish atop the league this season.
Kansas is unusually flawed, a good yet hardly dominant team with no surefire first-round draft picks, few shot creators and minimal interior depth. The Jayhawks have already lost twice at home this year, unheard of under Bill Self, and dropped another game against a middling Washington team in nearby Kansas City.
The Big 12 is also unusually stacked with four teams in the KenPom top 15, eight in the top 50 and all 10 in the top 100. Oklahoma boasts the nation’s leading scorer Trae Young and a potent supporting cast, West Virginia features senior guards and its usual harassing press and Texas Tech counters with a dynamic backcourt and one of college basketball’s elite defenses.
Morgantown is somewhere better Kansas teams than this one have often struggled, yet the Jayhawks found a way to pick up a huge win Monday night. They erased a 12-point deficit with nine minutes to go thanks to the leadership of Devonte Graham, the sharpshooting of Svi Mykhailiuk and an excellent defensive effort by the whole team.
Graham sparked the surge when he poked the ball away from James Bolden, scored a driving layup in transition and drew a fourth foul on West Virginia star Jevon Carter in the process. That 3-point play trimmed the deficit to seven with nearly eight minutes remaining.
Two stunningly open corner 3-pointers from Mykhailiuk cut into the deficit further and ratcheted up the pressure on West Virginia. Then Mykhailiuk gave Kansas the lead for good with just over two minutes left with a driving layup to make it 65-64.
Panicky shot selection contributed to West Virginia’s demise. Carter launched a trio of contested 3-pointers off the dribble in the final two minutes, all of which misfired.
Now Kansas has a road win that for awhile it didn’t look like the Jayhawks would get, something that could easily make a difference come March between claiming a share of the league title and finishing in second or third place.
Kansas may be flawed and the Big 12 may be loaded, but the Jayhawks will go to sleep tonight alone in first place. Same as it ever was.
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