Making others play bad was only part of the equation for the midseason turnaround that has Kansas back on top in the Big 12

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) erupts from the bench after a dunk from Kansas guard Joseph Yesufu (1) against Texas on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

One of the best-known elements of Bill Self basketball is his desire for his teams to aspire to make their opponents play poorly.

That, Self believes, is one of the biggest keys to winning basketball and it starts with tough defense, extends to discipline and includes an element of scrappiness that illustrates that no one cares if the game looks pretty as long as the job gets done.

There’s a complementary piece to that philosophy, as well, and Self said Tuesday night, after a road win over Oklahoma State that he was starting to see it with his current team.

“The last three games we’ve done a better job of being a little grimy,” Self said of his team’s three-game winning streak over Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. “(Before that), we liked playing games we were comfortable in. Hopefully we’re getting comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Doing that in the Big 12 Conference this season carries a little more weight than it might have in the past, given the top-to-bottom talent in the league.

“There’s at least seven and maybe eight (teams) that are second-weekend (NCAA Tournament) teams in our league,” Self said Tuesday night.

All 10 teams rank in the top 61 of the rankings, including five in the top 20 and three in the top 10. Even last-place Texas Tech, which lost its first eight games in conference play, has shown signs of life of late, winning games over Texas and Kansas State to create a three-way tie at the top of the conference standings with five games to play.

In a way, Self knew that was coming. So, even when the Jayhawks lost three in a row earlier this season, the veteran KU coach tried to convince his players that they would be all right as long as they continued to work.

“When we lost three in a row, everybody said the sky’s falling, I’m like going, ‘That’s the league we’re playing in right now.'”

Self said then that he thought everybody would go through a similar stretch before the season was over. And he projected that the winner of the league might be the team that avoids back-to-back losses.

As of now, only Texas can make that claim. But the Longhorns have lost two of their last three and finish the regular season with consecutive games against Iowa State, Baylor, TCU and Kansas, two at home and two away.

Here’s a look at the rest of the league’s roughest stretches to date:

• Baylor – lost three in a row to open league play

• Iowa State – lost four of six conference games in late January and early February

• Kansas – lost three in a row and four of five in late Januar/early February

• K-State – has lost five of its last six Big 12 games

• Oklahoma – currently on a seven-game Big 12 losing skid

• Oklahoma State – lost three in a row to open Big 12 play

• TCU – has lost five of last six and four in a row

• Texas – has dropped two of last three games

• Texas Tech – lost eight straight to open conference play

• West Virginia – dropped five in a row to open Big 12 play

The Jayhawks have responded to their rough patch with four Big 12 wins in the past five outings, putting them right back in the thick of the race heading into the homestretch.

Junior leader Jalen Wilson, KU’s All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, said that response came from veterans leading, younger players stepping up and everyone digging deep to find the pride that was needed to get things corrected.

“We’re never going to stop fighting no matter what’s going on,” Wilson said Tuesday night. “Our conference is really good. Losing three games in a row may seem bad while it’s going on but you’ve just got to find a way to keep going, keep pushing, and that’s what we were able to do.”

Asked on Thursday about the rest of the race and if he had any feel for what record might be required to come out on top, Self said it was still wide open because so many teams in the running still play each other.

“I would think five (losses) would for sure win it,” he said. “I would think six would have a shot. Obviously, if a team were to win out, it’d be done. (But) there’s opportunities for great wins and there’s also opportunities for somebody to get you on everybody’s schedule. (Going) 4-1 the rest of the way I would guarantee would win it. And getting to 12 (wins), although I don’t think that’s the percentage play, I do think there’s a chance that could get a piece of (the league title).”

Injuries could play a big role for all of the team’s still in the race and Self said Thursday he was “hopeful” that Dajuan Harris Jr. and Kevin McCullar Jr., who both injured ankles during Tuesday’s win at Oklahoma State, would be able to practice on Friday and play against Baylor on Saturday.

“They’ve (both) had four treatment sessions since we’ve been back (from OSU), maybe five,” Self said. “If they’re on the court (for Friday’s practice), they’ll play Saturday.”

Saturday’s matchup between No. 5 Kansas (21-5 overall, 9-4 Big 12) and No. 9 Baylor (20-6, 9-4), which will be the featured event on ESPN’s College GameDay, could go a long way toward deciding this year’s Big 12 champ.

Tipoff is slated for 3 p.m. on ESPN.


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