Kansas coach Bill Self would love nothing more than to reprise two epic regular-season games against bitter rival Missouri this weekend. The reason is quite simple.
”That means we win tomorrow,” he said. ”We got our hands full big-time tomorrow.”
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The third-ranked Jayhawks cruised into the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament with an 83-66 victory over Texas A&M on Thursday, while the fifth-ranked Tigers coasted into the semifinals in their half of the bracket with an equally easy 88-70 win over Oklahoma State.
But before Kansas can focus on another match-up with Missouri, Thomas Robinson and Co. have to deal with No. 12 Baylor, which got a career-best 31 points from Perry Jones III in an 82-74 win over Kansas State that was never really as close as the final score indicated.
”They’re so talented, it’s a joke,” Self said with a grimace.
Missouri will have to find a way past Texas, which needed a 22-4 run in the second half to dispatch No. 25 Iowa State 71-65 in Thursday’s nightcap. J’Covan Brown finished with 23 points for the Longhorns, converting the go-ahead three-point play in the closing seconds.
Provided both teams win, though, Missouri and Kansas would make for a tantalizing finale.
The Jayhawks squandered a big lead in the closing minutes when the teams met in Columbia, and Missouri returned the favor by blowing a 19-point lead in an overtime loss in Lawrence.
With Missouri heading to the SEC next season and officials from Kansas have saying they have no intention of playing the Tigers out of conference, that was the final scheduled regular-season match-up between two teams that have played for more than 100 years. There’s still simmering anger that Missouri nearly torpedoed the Big 12 with its decision to leave.
The fire was fanned even more this week when Self proclaimed that Kansas City, which lies on Interstate 70 between the two campuses, is more of a ”Kansas town” than a ”Missouri town.”
”Marcus (Denmon) was born and raised in Kansas City,” replied Tigers guard Kim English, no stranger to controversial statements. ”Mike Dixon, Steve Moore, Jarrett Sutton, Andrew Jones. The city has adopted me. So this is our city.”
Yes, lines have certainly been drawn, and one of them goes right through the Sprint Center.
Assuming, of course, Kansas and Missouri take care of business Friday night.
The Bears looked dominant against Kansas State, which had surged into the Big 12 tournament having won four of its last five games. Jones made all eight of his shots in the first half, Brady Heslip finished with 15 points and Baylor never allowed the lead to dwindle below five points in the second half, despite a virtuoso performance by the Wildcats’ Jordan Henriquez.
He finished with a career-high 22 points and 14 rebounds.
”We were so bad defensively today,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin. ”They’re a heck of a basketball team. I don’t want to take away from them, their moment, because they won the game. But defensively, we were so selfish today. We didn’t help each other.”
Baylor made it look easy in their flashy new fluorescent green uniforms.
Kansas made it look even easier in their tried-and-true home whites.
Elijah Johnson poured in a career-high 26 points, Robinson added 19 points and 10 rebounds, and the Jayhawks built a 20-point lead on Texas A&M before taking it easy down the stretch.
Khris Middleton finished with 24 points for the Aggies.
In some ways, Oklahoma State’s Keiton Page knew how Middleton felt.
The high-scoring guard had 22 points for the Cowboys, but it wasn’t nearly enough against a Missouri team clicking on all cylinders. English scored 27 points, Denmon added 24 and sophomore guard Phil Pressey contributed 12 assists, one shy of a school record.
”Their defense was just stifling,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. ”They played with such great energy. We were tired. I could see it. They’re a veteran, experienced, physically tough basketball team. They might not be the tallest team, but they are a physical team. We’re just the opposite. We’re young. And they were playing to their strengths. Their defense led to offense.”
It led to a date with Texas, too.
The Longhorns may have needed to knock off the Cyclones in the quarterfinals to get into the NCAA tournament, and things looked dire when they fell behind by 11 in the second half. But a 22-4 spurt turned the game around, and Brown delivered in the closing minutes.
”Let’s just say we are on the bubble,” Texas coach Rick Barnes recalled telling his team at halftime. ”Now if I write down NIT or NCAA, which one would you put your name under? Which one? Whichever one you want, you have to earn it.”
At the very least, they earned a spot in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.