On the same day Kansas was projected as the second overall seed in the NCAA’s initial top 16-seed rankings, the Jayhawks barely edged out Texas Tech in an 80-79 thriller in Lubbock, Texas.
The Red Raiders, a fringe NCAA tournament team in need of a big win to push them on the right side of the bubble, are now in ninth place of the 10-team conference. Which begs the question: Are there really any bad teams in this league? Statistically, both Texas and Oklahoma are, but it’s not like winning in Austin or Norman are easy venues to pull out victories.
Point is, the Big 12’s strength is something the NCAA selection committee clearly noticed on Saturday, putting Kansas and Baylor — two three-loss teams — over an undefeated Gonzaga team that’s No. 1 in the coaches poll and has a better rèsumè than many seem to realize. Likewise, West Virginia — a five-loss team and No. 14 in the coaches poll, was a projected No. 3 seed — whereas Wisconsin was left out of the first 16 despite being No. 5 in the coaches poll and standing way out front in the Big Ten with three losses.
The Jayhawks are chasing their 13th (!) consecutive regular-season championship and Saturday’s result against Texas Tech was a classic example of why history keeps being made. Kansas is now 7-1 in games decided by single digits in 2016-17. And as much love as Frank Mason III has been getting for national player of the year, so much of this team’s success has been a product of freshman Josh Jackson being equally as valuable — evidenced by his 31-point outing against Tech, which included the game-winning free throw.
A game to circle on the calendar is next Saturday, Feb. 18, when the Jayhawks visit Waco for a rematch against Baylor, which narrowly lost to KU by five points in the first showdown on Feb. 1. Rarely are two Final Four-caliber teams so locked on notching No. 1 seeds in early February. Baylor, which sports the nation’s top overall RPI, has a non-conference rèsumè that is as pretty as it gets with wins against Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier.
The Big 12 may be the country’s toughest conference if it’s being measured by regular-season statistics, but remember last year the league sent seven of its 10 teams and only three of them made it past the first round, as Baylor was upset by Cinderella Yale and West Virginia got beat by darling Stephen F. Austin.