LAWRENCE — Not one to be prone to hyperbole, Bill Self nevertheless had no qualms labeling Kansas basketball’s weekend tilt at Texas Tech the team’s biggest game of the year, perhaps longer.
It may come as a surprise, then, that the must-see showdown will hold that honor for the college hoops equivalent of a cup of coffee.
“You come to places like this to play in big games, and this is obviously one of the biggest games we’ve had in the regular season for a while,” Self said Thursday, “and it will probably be the biggest game of our season — until Monday.”
The No. 12-ranked Jayhawks (20-6, 9-4 Big 12) begin a two-step that could determine their league hopes in the 7 p.m. Saturday contest against No. 16 Texas Tech (21-5, 9-4) at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas. That high-stakes battle precedes an 8 p.m. Monday dogfight at home against rival Kansas State, which enters the weekend one game up on both the Jayhawks and Red Raiders.
KU, of course, has five regular-season contests remaining to make up ground in its pursuit of at least a share of a national record-extending 15th straight conference championship.
“Obviously that 48 hours is going to be really important to our program,” Self said, “and this particular team.”
While the rematch with the No. 23-ranked Wildcats looms within the Sunflower State — K-State earned a heated 74-67 victory over the Jayhawks on Feb. 5 in Manhattan — Self said his group won’t think about that contest until “the horn sounds in Lubbock, but not until then.”
Given how Texas Tech has performed since its season-worst 16-point defeat to KU on Feb. 2 in Lawrence, it’s safe to say the group should have everyone's attention.
The defensive-minded Red Raiders have won four straight since that 79-63 outcome, rolling foes by an average margin of victory of 24 points across the stretch. Self cited Big 12 player of the year contender Jarrett Culver (17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game) as well as recent contributors Brandone Francis and Matt Mooney as driving factors behind Texas Tech’s clicking offense.
“I think they’re just beating the crap out of people. They’re blowing people out,” Self said. “It appears to me they’re more aggressive on the offensive end as far as taking quick shots and more guys shooting 3s. ... They have a good team, but defensively is what they hang their hat on and it seems to me they have been really turned up for the last few games.”
Texas Tech sports a Big 12-best plus-7.2 scoring margin in league play and a plus-14.3 scoring margin on the season, which ranks eighth nationally. Far from flashy on offense, Chris Beard’s squad can credit the stout defense that ranks first nationally in opponent shooting percentage (36.1) and second in opponent points per game (57.2) for the lopsided outcomes.
Perhaps the biggest X-factor Saturday will be how the Jayhawks respond to what is certain to be a raucous home environment. KU earned an 82-77 overtime victory at TCU in its last road contest but only after it recovered from what was a blown 12-point lead with less than 10 minutes left in regulation. The team’s only other road victory, a 73-68 outcome Jan. 12 at Baylor, saw the Jayhawks nearly blow a 22-point lead with 6:29 remaining.
“Our road record stinks. We’re 2-6 on the year,” Self said. “Of course, we’ve played some good road teams, but other teams in our league have played good road teams too, and they’ve had more success. We need to take our act on the road and play at a high level. Even if you do that it doesn’t guarantee winning the game, but certainly it puts you in a position to win the game.”
Whether KU’s four freshmen starters — guards Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji and forward David McCormack — can do just that remains an unknown. With all the stresses of the season, though, there’s one topic Self says he hasn’t broached a single time with the first-year players: the Big 12 winning streak.
“We have with more experienced teams, but I have not brought that up,” Self said. “I think all that would do would just add some pressure to them. Injuries are never excuses — they're not, so let's not get into that — but I think the young kids are doing pretty good considering who we're not playing with. There's no reason to add any pressure to what they're already doing."
Mitch Lightfoot already has two Big 12 title defenses to his name. The junior forward said he’s sensed a buzz throughout the Jayhawks’ midweek bye that’s indicative of what’s on the line.
“We watched film (Wednesday) and you could feel the energy. Even with how Coach is coaching us, there’s an energy there,” Lightfoot said. “We’re ready to give it all we’ve got and hopefully finish this out right.”
“It doesn’t necessarily put an exclamation point on where your season will finish based on the outcome, but it would certainly benefit the one (winner) greatly and put them in a position to maybe play for something,” Self said. “Yeah, it’s certainly a huge game.
“It’s probably fitting that both teams get a week off, so there are absolutely no excuses from anybody. Both teams have ample time to prepare and everything. It’s going to be fun.”
Garrett to be available
Sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who has missed the last five games with an ankle sprain, practiced on a limited basis Monday and Tuesday and is on track to be available Saturday, though Self said the defensive specialist’s usage in that contest will be a game-time decision.
Self said he was eager to see how Garrett responded to Thursday and Friday’s practices.
“Right now, I think it is as much trust as anything,” Self said. “It’s hard for him to be able to explode off his left ankle.”