We’ve all done this exercise before.
Normally, it’s premature and inaccurate, or at least it has been for the past 13 seasons.
But this time, it just feels different. It feels like this could actually be the time.
Is this the year Kansas’ streak of Big 12 titles comes to an end?
The Jayhawks were outplayed from start to finish by Texas Tech on Tuesday night, falling 85-73. Kansas is now 11-3 on the season and 1-1 in the Big 12. The season is far from over, and before Tuesday night, most people would have said the Jayhawks were still the odds-on favorite to win the conference championship.
But it’s now officially a question that can be asked -- and this time, we actually mean it.
From the Kansas perspective, this might be the worst team Bill Self has had during his time in Lawrence. Since Self took over at Kansas in 2003, the Jayhawks’ lowest ranking in the final AP poll was No. 16, in his first season in charge. Is Kansas one of the 16 best teams in college basketball right now? Probably not.
There are several issues with the Jayhawks. They lack size and depth up front, they’re overly reliant on the 3-point shot, and they get to the free throw line less often than anyone in the country. Most of those problems come back to the fact that Kansas is missing leadership and toughness from a year ago. Frank Mason was arguably the nation’s best go-to guy late in games, and Josh Jackson was a tough-minded two-way player. No one has filled those shoes this season.
When Texas Tech was keeping Kansas at bay in the second half Tuesday, Self was looking for an answer. And the players on the floor didn’t seem to have it. They passed it around the perimeter, hoping someone else would make a shot or dribble into traffic and hope for the best. There’s no one to demand the ball and will his way to a key basket.
Part of that is a lack of talent on the roster, though. There are usually multiple pros on a Kansas team. A Jayhawk has been taken in the first round in 10 of Self’s 14 years at the helm, 23 players drafted in all. Who’s the best pro prospect that Kansas has right now? They’ll all make money playing basketball somewhere after college, but there’s not a surefire NBA player on the roster.
Kansas fans have been holding out hope that the winter reinforcements will save the day. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe has played single-digit minutes in all but one game he has been eligible. He didn’t get off the bench against Texas on Friday. Reclassified freshman Silvio de Sousa is not eligible yet, but it seems difficult to imagine he’ll go from high school one month to the Big 12 the next month without a few hiccups along the way. And then there’s Billy Preston, the most talented player on the team, but one whose debut date is up in the air due to an investigation into a car accident in the fall.
So this is far from a typical Kansas team. More importantly, though, it’s not a typical Big 12 season. The league is absolutely loaded at the top.
Texas Tech is now ranked in the top five at KenPom.com, but the Red Raiders were only the fifth-highest-ranked Big 12 team in the latest AP poll. Chris Beard has done a tremendous job with this year’s team; in fact, Tuesday’s win over Kansas was his first Big 12 road win since taking over the Red Raiders before last season.
West Virginia has won 92 games the past three-and-a-half seasons, and the Mountaineers are pressing and rebounding and wearing teams down on a nightly basis. Jevon Carter is playing the best basketball of his life, and the Mountaineers about to get Esa Ahmad back from suspension.
TCU was unbeaten before falling to Oklahoma over the weekend, and the Horned Frogs bounced back with a road win at Baylor on Tuesday. The Horned Frogs will stay in the mix all season long.
Then there’s Oklahoma, which has the nation’s best player in Trae Young -- a player good enough to carry the Sooners to a Big 12 title.
Every other team in the league, sans perhaps Iowa State, is a legitimate top-60 team nationally as well. It’s difficult to envision anyone going 15-3 or 14-4 in Big 12 play this season. There is going to be a logjam of teams at the top -- and Kansas is just another team in the mix this time around.
Kansas has been tested before during the streak. The Jayhawks have suffered surprising losses and bounced back to win the conference.
But Kansas’ struggles combined with the strength of the Big 12 makes this year feel a bit different, especially when the Jayhawks lose two games in Allen Fieldhouse and another in Kansas City, Missouri -- before the first week of January ends.