KU basketball two-step against last-place Iowa State 'as big as it gets,' Bill Self says
LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball’s hellish schedule this season has already featured high-profile clashes against teams now ranked one, two, seven, 12 (twice), 13, 14 (twice), 16, 19 and 23 (twice).
It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, to learn how Bill Self classified the Jayhawks’ upcoming double feature against a team whose only victories have come against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jackson State.
“It’s probably the two biggest games on our schedule thus far,” Self said, “without question.”
KU (13-7, 7-5 Big 12) will welcome last-place Iowa State (2-12, 0-9) to Allen Fieldhouse for a rescheduled 6 p.m. Thursday matchup before squaring off with the Cyclones once more, this time at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. Winless since Dec. 20, ISU will ride an eight-game losing streak into the unconventional home-and-home.
The Jayhawks, who were the nation’s No. 3-ranked team ahead of a 5-6 stretch that has dropped them out of the polls for the first time since 2008-09, snapped a four-game losing streak to ranked opponents with a 78-66 home victory Monday against No. 23 Oklahoma State. With six games left in its regular season, KU enters the doubleheader with the Cyclones looking up in the league standings at No. 2 Baylor (17-0, 9-0), No. 14 West Virginia (14-5, 7-3) and No. 12 Oklahoma (12-5, 7-4).
“This is as big as it gets this year, to determine if we have a chance to finish second in our league,” Self said. “That’s a realistic goal, but certainly we’ve got to play well against everybody moving forward, and certainly we can’t stub our toe at home.
"It’s big. It’s big for us. We’ve certainly got to take care of business and be focused and ready to play. I think (Monday) did wonders for us from a confidence (standpoint) in kind of getting the monkey off our back, so to speak.”
Given the program’s historic run of Big 12 regular-season championships, Self acknowledged fans likely “won’t think it’s favorable” positioning to finish second in the league heading into the postseason. Still, given how things have unfolded since his team returned from holiday break, the 18th-year Jayhawk head coach said in a postgame radio interview that earning that distinction would be “a great goal” for this particular group.
“So we’ve still got a lot to play for,” Self added.
ISU, which was originally set to take on the Jayhawks on Jan. 16 in Lawrence before COVID-19 protocols within the program postponed that matchup and three others on its schedule, is finally back to full strength and has played better than its record would indicate, particularly of late. Five of the team’s nine Big 12 defeats have come by single digits, including each of its last three setbacks.
The Cyclones fell 79-76 on Tuesday at TCU, wasting a 26-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist performance by junior guard Rasir Bolton. Now averaging 16.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists, Bolton has reached double-figure scoring in all but one of ISU's 14 contests this season.
“They can beat us. They can beat other teams in our league,” Self said. “But also if we play and if we’re connected and do what we think we’re capable of doing, then there’s no reason why we can’t have great games against them, too.”
After the two-step against ISU, KU will take on ninth-place Kansas State at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Manhattan — that matchup was pushed back a day as part of the Big 12's rescheduling plans announced Tuesday. A three-game gauntlet will then close out the Jayhawks' regular season, beginning with a home date versus No. 7 Texas Tech (1 p.m. Feb. 20), a road affair against No. 13 Texas (8 p.m. Feb. 23) and a second crack at the Bears (7 p.m. Feb. 27), this time at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I’m happy. I’m leaving out of here happy,” Self said after the victory over the Cowboys. “The guys are excited. They deserve to have some fun and be excited. It sets up two huge games back-to-back, Thursday-Saturday.”
KU committed 19 turnovers in its victory over Oklahoma State, with the Cowboys converting those giveaways into 19 points. That outing followed an 18-turnover performance in the Jayhawks' 91-79 defeat last Saturday at WVU.
KU now has 162 turnovers in Big 12 play versus 162 committed by its opponents, with that even margin ranking fifth among the league’s 10 teams.
“We just got to tighten up the turnovers and everything, but I think a lot of that comes from kids pressing and (playing) tight and trying too hard,” Self said. “Hopefully this (win) will let them relax a little bit and play more free moving forward.”
IOWA STATE AT KANSAS
Tipoff: 6 p.m. Thursday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Records: Iowa State 2-12, 0-9 Big 12; Kansas 13-7, 7-5 Big 12
Line: KU by 14
TV/Radio: ESPN+ (online streaming)/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7)
Up next for KU: at Iowa State, 2 p.m. Saturday, Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa