Night Line: Jayhawks Escape Octagon of Doom Victorious — Is Perfect Big 12 Season Possible?Posted by BHayes on January 22nd, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
At some point during the nine-year Bill Self era, we stopped being surprised by another year of Kansas dominance. Offseason after offseason of KU stars leaving Lawrence for the NBA seem to never be remembered by the time the next January rolls around, and this first month of 2013 has been no exception. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor posted brilliant individual campaigns a year ago, as both earned All-America honors in leading Kansas all the way to the national championship game. Neither has taken the floor at Allen Fieldhouse in almost a full year, but looky, looky – Kansas is 17-1 and a perfect 5-0 in Big-12 play. A ninth consecutive Big 12 regular season title is beginning to look like a mere formality, as the Jayhawks dispatched rival Kansas State tonight in Manhattan en route to their 16th straight victory. Self has accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish in his near-decade at KU, but this group of Jayhawks still has a chance to do something that none of the previous nine could do – run the table for a perfect Big 12 season.
Robinson and Taylor may be gone, but these Jayhawks have their own pair of potential All-Americans. We all became well-acquainted with Jeff Withey and his menacing defense a year ago, but meet freshman Ben McLemore, who, in the estimation of many, has been both the best newcomer in the country and the top player in the conference. Less is more for the silky-smooth wing, as he has needed just 11 field goal attempts to score his 16 points per game. He has played well within the Kansas system to this point, but do not doubt that McLemore will be ready to shoulder more of a load if and when the situation demands it.
McLemore and Withey are both special players, but a relative lack of name recognition on the roster at-large may make some skeptical of this squad as a truly vintage Kansas team. An understandable notion, but there has been no indication to this point that this year’s team can’t be every bit as good as the Robinson-led Jayhawks of a year ago. Both their offensive and defensive efficiency have improved, but it’s the Withey-led defense that deserves special mention. Kansas is third nationally in effective FG% against, leads the land in two-point percentage against, and it all comes together to put KU fifth in overall defensive efficiency. Self’s teams have always been stout defensively, but this bunch could well end up his best group of half-court stoppers ever.
While Kansas appears its traditionally powerful self, the conference around them has lost much of its pop. Trading Missouri and Texas A&M for TCU and West Virginia weakened the league this season before the games even began, and little has happened since to make up for those departures. Kansas State has definitely looked the part of the second-best team in the league, meaning the Jayhawks have likely already cleared their toughest hurdle. Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have all had their moments, and road journeys to each of the quartet should provide a challenge for the ‘Hawks. But all in all, when realizing that this still is the Big 12, the road ahead looks pretty manageable if you are in Bill Self’s chair.
Let’s be clear: The odds are very much against a perfect season. Running the table in any league is a challenge, let alone the Big 12, and there is a reason why no Self team has ever been able to do it. Add in the fact that Big 12 teams now play 18 conference games this year – two more than in years past, and you probably don’t have to do much number-crunching to reach the conclusion that a perfect season is a risky bet. So recognize it as unlikely, but don’t forget to do the simple math as well – a good-as-ever Kansas team and a severely weakened conference means that the sky is the limit in Lawrence.