LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) – There were moments of frustration for Kansas coach Bill Self, moments where he’d angrily call a timeout or attend a postgame news conference and glumly bemoan another uneven performance.
There never was a moment where he lost faith in his team.
Now, after enduring the nation’s most brutal non-conference schedule, the sixth-ranked Jayhawks are proving to be exactly what the pundits thought they’d be: The Big 12’s premier team, one that already has a substantial lead in the conference as the race nears its midway point.
”We have grown, but we’re just now to the middle of the season. That’s what’s so strange,” Self said. ”The big thing is that we’re playing with more energy and we’re starting to understand how we’re going to score – not just running an offense to run an offense. We’re not a tough team by any stretch, but are playing tougher than we did earlier in the season.”
That’s certainly been evident in the results.
After a loss to then-No. 21 San Diego State ended the Jayhawks’ 68-game non-conference winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas (16-4, 7-0) has ripped off seven straight wins through arguably the toughest part of its league schedule.
After the Jayhawks, No. 25 Texas (16-4, 5-2) may be the next hottest team in the Big 12 heading into Saturday’s meeting in Austin.
The Longhorns have rattled off five straight wins, the last three coming against ranked teams in Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor. The Jayhawks will represent the first time in school history that Texas will have played four consecutive Top 25 opponents.
”They’re young. They’re not quite as young as we are, but they’re young and fast, probably as fast as any team we’ll play,” Self said. ”They’re obviously playing their tails off.”
Kansas’ win streak began at Oklahoma, which is now No. 23, and continued with wins over four straight teams that were ranked in the Top 25 – Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor. After a blowout win at TCU, the Jayhawks beat the No. 16 Cyclones for a second time Wednesday night.
Now, they’ll head to Texas with essentially a two-game lead in the Big 12.
”I’m not surprised at all,” junior guard Naadir Tharpe said. ”I knew it was going to be a matter of time until everybody just let water run off their back and start going out there and just playing. That is what I feel like dudes are doing right now.”
The most important of them may be Andrew Wiggins.
After fits and starts to begin his college career, the 6-foot-8 swingman and projected lottery pick in the June draft has gone on a tear. Wiggins scored a career-high 27 points in the win over the Horned Frogs, and then bested it with 29 points against the Cyclones earlier this week.
He’s averaging more than 24 points over his past three games.
”I would say I feel more comfortable on the court,” Wiggins said. ”A lot of things are slowing down for me and my teammates are looking for me.”
Since the start of league play, the nine-time defending champion Jayhawks are putting up a Big 12-leading 84.9 points per game. They’re just a half-point out of second place in scoring defense, and their scoring margin of 12 points per game is seven better than second-place Oklahoma State.
The Jayhawks also lead the league in field-goal and 3-point percentage, rebounding defense and margin, blocked shots and assists.
Texas has had a week off to get ready for what will surely be a tough game after winning 74-60 at Baylor last Saturday and moving into the poll Monday for the first time since 2010-11.
The Longhorns have already matched their victory total from last season, but coach Rick Barnes isn’t ready to label his team a Big 12 contender.
"We’ll find out," he said. "… I said, `Guys, what’s fun about this is if you want to be really good, when you really find out how tough you are is when people are now coming after you.’ But I still think we are the kind of team that we have to stay on edge all the time."
Freshman guard Isaiah Taylor, who led the Longhorns with a career-high 27 points last Saturday, agrees with his coach.
"It’s a pretty big accomplishment, but our mindset all year has been to not be content with how we are doing," Taylor said. "We are trying to get better each day in practice. We really haven’t done anything yet."
Texas hasn’t done much in recent meetings with Kansas, losing five straight and 11 of 13. The Jayhawks have won their last three visits to Austin.