Kansas only Big 12 team to enter week on target to play full league schedule on time
Most of the men’s basketball teams in the Big 12 will be making up missed games next week. Not Kansas.
The Jayhawks proved to be the only program in the league fortunate enough amid a season marred by COVID protocols and even severe weather postponements to enter this week having already played 16 conference games — the exact number that every Big 12 team would have been at, if not for the pauses and rescheduling and general calendar chaos.
Quick. Knock on some wood or partake in your personal superstitious act of preference. We don’t want to jinx anything. We want to see Kansas play Baylor on Saturday.
OK, now that we’ve absolved ourselves of any wrongdoing, take a second to appreciate what KU’s players and staff have done (with some luck along the way). The No. 17 Jayhawks (17-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) have made it to the final week of the regular season without having to “pause basketball activities” or miss a string of games because of positive COVID cases. KU had a meaningless nonconference game against Tarleton State wiped out during an already busy week in December because of issues with the opponent. Even better, the Jayhawks encountered just one Big 12 postponement (because of Iowa State’s protocols at the time), and they already played the makeup game and won it.
When this week’s slate of games began, Baylor — one of the two best teams in the country this season, but apparently one of the worst at managing pandemic life — had only played nine Big 12 games. Nine. Half the league schedule. In late February. As in March is almost here.
Kansas State got in 15 of its 16 league games ahead of this final stretch. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State all entered the week with 13 Big 12 games behind them. West Virginia, Texas and Texas Tech each had played 12. And TCU got in 11.
Even though the past several weeks haven’t always been pretty for the Jayhawks on the court, they do have to consider it opportune that the schedule broke the way it did for them and they were able to keep working through their struggles.
Can you imagine how the season might be playing out if KU also had to stop playing or practicing in recent weeks, not getting the chance to grind their way out of a slump and come out on the other side?
Sophomore guard Christian Braun appreciates that the Jayhawks have reached this stage of the season without any major interruptions.
“I think there’s advantages to it. We went through a tough stretch,” Braun said, referencing KU’s 3-5 January. “So shutting down during that stretch would’ve been tough to come back from. But we’ve all done a really good job staying safe, staying away from everybody. And that’s really important for any team — especially now, this late in the season.”
If ever there was a time for the Jayhawks to become lax with health and safety guidelines, it was while stumbling through January, when even playing basketball on a national stage for a storied program wasn’t feeling especially fun for anyone.
As Braun said, though, they just kept isolating and working at getting back to what they came to Kansas for in the first place — winning basketball games. It paid off, too, and the Jayhawks’ arrow is pointing upward again with March and all of its accompanying Madness just around the corner.
Even so, KU is playing its final week of the regular season with NCAA Tournament seeding at stake. What if the Jayhawks also had to play two or three more games next week, and against the top teams in the Big 12, not the bottom feeders? That’s a scenario in which they could not only potentially suffer more losses and hurt their seed line, but also end up with further fatigued players heading into the postseason, with so many games on the schedule in such a small window.
It’s not likely for Baylor, even after going three full weeks without a game, to fall out of its position as a No. 1 seed in the next two weeks. BU and Gonzaga clearly have established themselves as the title favorites for 2021. But what’s ahead of the Bears, after some tinkering at the Big 12 offices, is five games in 13 days.
KU coach Bill Self, who like many of us thought BU would have to play three games both this week and next, said Monday during his video press conference that would be “a lot for anybody to play.”
Unlike KU, which will conclude its Big 12 slate on Saturday, when the Bears visit Lawrence (again, fingers and toes crossed and all of that), these teams that have more games unplayed than time to play them didn’t even know until Tuesday which opponents they would have waiting for them during the conference’s built-in makeup week.
Texas coach Shaka Smart said Monday during his video press conference that Big 12 decision makers told the Longhorns that league administrators planned to plug a formula into a computer to determine the makeup schedules for teams such as the Longhorns and Bears.
The Jayhawks don’t have to worry about any such headaches. All they have to do is play the games that were already on the schedule and keep taking the pandemic seriously during what has to seem like a never-ending cycle of mundane downtime.
Braun stressed it would be important for the Jayhawks to remain “locked in” — and he just as easily could’ve mean that literally about KU players in McCarthy Hall — and not have any setbacks in terms of COVID testing.
“No team can afford to get shut down,” Braun said of this late stage of the season. “The guys have done a great job.”