LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball has been the standard bearer of the Big 12 throughout Bill Self’s 16-plus-year tenure with the Jayhawks, winners of 14 conference titles in that time frame.
With that in mind, Self’s observation about a current league foe should carry more weight, particularly ahead of what will be a high-profile, high-stakes rematch that will that will go a long way in determining whether KU adds to that Big 12 championship haul this season.
"I think Baylor is the best team that we have played on a Feb. 19 that’s been in our league that we’ve competed against since I’ve been at Kansas," Self said Wednesday on his weekly radio program. "And to me that’s saying a lot, because we’ve had so many good teams in our league. But we haven’t had anybody that’s done what Baylor has done this year from a consistency standpoint that we’ve played against."
High praise, indeed.
Better are these Bears, Self said, than the two squads that previously held that distinction: the 2003-’04 Oklahoma State group, a Final Four participant that featured Tony Allen and four other future NBA players, and last year’s Texas Tech team, which fell in overtime in the national championship game.
KU (22-3, 12-1 Big 12) and Baylor (24-1, 13-0) will square off at 11 a.m. Saturday at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas (ESPN).
"Kudos to them," Self continued. "It’s our job to go down there and make them play poorly, which they did to us here (in Lawrence). It should be a fun atmosphere and certainly a game that I think a lot of people are looking forward to, including us."
Both teams enter Saturday’s game riding a wave of momentum, with the Jayhawks’ 67-55 home defeat to the Bears on Jan. 11 the only hiccup for either since the calendar turned over to 2020.
Baylor led 21-2 in points off of turnovers in that first contest, forcing 14 while itself committing just five en route to the comfortable victory. That outcome was the Bears’ first-ever victory inside Allen Fieldhouse, improving the program to 1-16 in the historic facility, and it was also tied for the largest margin of defeat for a Self-led Jayhawk squad in a home contest.
Guards Jared Butler (22 points), MaCio Teague (16) and Davion Mitchell (10) shined for the Bears, the trio combining for just two of the visitors' five turnovers in the victory. A 22-4 run to end the first half gave Baylor a 13-point lead at intermission, and Scott Drew’s group led the rest of the way.
"They flipped the tables on us on that one because the game is an even game except for those four or five minutes," Self said. "Of course you can’t look at it that way, and that was a time where we just turned it over, which led to baskets."
Big 12 preseason player of the year Udoka Azubuike finished with 11 rebounds and just six points in Round 1, the 7-foot senior center limited to six total shot attempts.
"They really scouted us well and we didn’t adjust as well as what we probably should’ve and probably didn’t help (the players) enough as far as in-game adjustments," Self said. "But they played behind and in front of Doke (Azubuike) and they did a good job fronting. Doke thinks he’s open when he’s getting fronted because he can’t feel what’s behind him. He wasn’t really open. So we’ve got to do a better job of figuring out some different angles to get him some touches and that kind of stuff, which I think we’re capable of doing. I think they’re tweaks instead of real changes. But they did a really good job guarding us."
KU has won 11 straight games and 14 of 15. Baylor has reeled off 23 straight wins, with its 13-game streak in conference play a Big 12 record. According to VegasInsider.com, the Jayhawks, Bears and No. 2-ranked Gonzaga all have 7/1 odds to win the national championship, making them the favorites at this late stage.
"I think we’re better (since the first matchup), but you could probably say the same thing about them, you know," Self said. "I think we’re a better team, but being better doesn’t guarantee you to play well because in this particular season and in watching us you can see when we’re on, we’re pretty good, but when we’re not on, we can look really average."
KU can’t afford average Saturday, where a defeat would put the Jayhawks two games back of the Bears with just four contests remaining. KU last season failed to earn at least a share of the Big 12 championship, snapping a national record-breaking streak of 14 straight major conference regular season titles.
"Let’s go guard ’em and have some fun. It should be an exciting game," Self said. "You go to schools to play in games like this. I expect it to be high-intensity and certainly you hope you play with poise, but it’ll be a ton of fun I’m sure for everybody there."