LAWRENCE, Kan. – This was supposed to be the season that the Jayhawks were finally challenged for conference supremacy. Oklahoma State returned a bevy of stars, including All-American Marcus Smart, and teams such as Baylor and Iowa State thought they had the makings of a championship contender.
Instead, Kansas has proven once more that the road to a title runs through Lawrence.
The Cowboys are struggling just to make the NCAA tournament during a miserable season that hit a low when Smart was suspended for entering the stands at Texas Tech. Baylor and Iowa State have both gone through plenty of lows with their highs, while teams such as Oklahoma and Kansas State have proven they can beat just about anybody — including the Jayhawks.
Kansas State pulled that trick last week. The problem for the rest of the league is that except for Texas, nobody else has been able to duplicate it.
That means the eighth-ranked Jayhawks (20-6) are 11-2 in the standings, while the Longhorns (20-6) are 9-4. Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State are stuck in a logjam at 8-5. A victory Saturday at home against No. 19 Texas and the Jayhawks will all but wrap up a share of their 10th straight Big 12 title.
"The big thing is we can't talk about anything past Saturday," Kansas coach Bill Self said, "because if it doesn't happen Saturday, it's a one-game lead as opposed to a three-game lead."
Kansas has been in tight races before, of course.
Not all of those conference championships have been won in a walk.
Last season, the Jayhawks actually tied with Kansas State for the regular-season crown, only to beat the Wildcats in the league tournament. The four titles before that were won outright, but the Jayhawks were forced to share the championship with Texas in 2006 and '08.
The last time Kansas didn't win at least a share was 2004, when Oklahoma State won it.
To put that feat into perspective, the Division I record is held by John Wooden's UCLA teams that won 13 straight conference championships. Gonzaga had its streak of 11 consecutive West Coast Conference championships stopped in 2012, only to win it again last season.
"To me it's not even about the league race Saturday," Self said, "it's about playing Texas and playing a team that's already handled us once, and it's one of the residual effects is that it's big for the league race, but also it's just an opportunity for us to try to play better against a team that smacked us around pretty good."
The Longhorns beat the Jayhawks 81-69 on Feb. 1 in a game that was never really close. The lead was 15 points by halftime and remained that way most of the game.
"It's just about us. In a big game, we just weren't ready to play and we lost," Kansas center Joel Embiid said, "but we'll be ready on Saturday."