Jayhawks open Big 12 play at Texas

Lagerald Vick is part of KU's four-guard starting lineup.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Texas and No. 11 Kansas renew their basketball rivalry Friday at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, in their respective Big 12 Conference openers.

But, given the overall difficulty in the upcoming schedule and the balance of the league’s teams, this game is more a chance to get off on the right foot than to make a statement to carry through March.

Six teams in the Big 12 are ranked in the latest Top 25 poll, led by No. 7 West Virginia, and the league’s 10 teams hit their round-robin conference play grid with a combined record of 112-15. None of the squads have more than three losses.

“Somebody said, ‘Is this a hard opening game?'” Kansas coach Bill Self told local reporters as his team prepared for Texas. “And the answer would be, ‘Hell, yes, it is,’ but anybody we play would be a hard opening road game.”

Even with the league’s strength and parity, the Jayhawks (10-2) are the team to beat until proven otherwise. Kansas has won 13 straight Big 12 titles and a mind-boggling 26 straight conference openers dating to the 1991-92 season.

The last time the Jayhawks lost a conference opener was at Oklahoma on Jan. 8, 1991. This will be the ninth time in Self’s 15 seasons at Kansas that the Jayhawks have opened Big 12 play on the road.

The preseason No. 4 team in the nation started the season 7-0 before losing back-to-back games at home by a combined 19 points and dropping out of the top 10. Since its one bad week, Kansas has won three straight games (two away from Allen Fieldhouse).

The Jayhawks have been playing with seven scholarship players for most of the season and have been waiting for three players to be ruled eligible by the NCAA.

The story of the season has been guards and lack of players. Kansas may have three of the league’s top 15 guards in Devonte’ Graham, Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk. The Jayhawks use a four-guard starting lineup with center Udoka Azubuike roaming the paint.

Self said his team’s defense is “average at best” and also realizes that playing this small can hamper his team’s rebounding. He also remains frustrated with his team’s inability to draw fouls. The Jayhawks have attempted 10 free throws or fewer in five straight games.

Still, the Jayhawks might be the best space-and-pace team in basketball.

“We’re just not a grind-it-out team yet,” Self said, “but if we get a little bigger, maybe we can become that.”

Texas (9-3) enters league play on the heels of one of its best games of the season, a 66-50 victory over Alabama on Dec. 22 at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala.

The Longhorns were led in that game by freshman forward Mohamed Bamba, who recorded season highs in points (17), field goals made (seven) and blocks (six) while adding 11 rebounds (four offensive) in 29 minutes.

Matt Coleman added 13 points, Kerwin Roach II hit for 11 points and Dylan Osetkowski grabbed 11 rebounds for the Longhorns, who held Alabama to 34.4 percent shooting for the game.

It was the best Texas has played against a quality opponent in the final minutes of a game. The Longhorns’ late 12-0 run proved to be the difference.

“We played well against Alabama, but now we have to get our minds in the right mindset and in the right place to go play Kansas,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “Obviously, our conference has a lot of very good teams and this is a chance for us to see how we stack up against one of those.”

Texas’ three losses this season — including overtime defeats against No. 4 Duke and No. 20 Gonzaga on the road — are by a combined 19 points.

The Longhorns are winning with defense, holding their first 12 opponents to an average of 60.4 points on 37.4 percent shooting, including a 28.2 percent mark from 3-point range.

Texas enters Friday’s contest with a 17-4 record in Big 12 Conference home openers. Guard Andrew Jones (wrist) will be a game-time decision Friday, per Smart, but he will be limited if he plays.

Kansas leads the all-time series with Texas 29-8, and captured the most recent contest between the two teams 77-67 last February in Austin. That made it seven straight wins over the Longhorns, and 12 of the last 13 and 15 of the last 17. The last Kansas loss was an 81-69 setback in Austin on Feb. 2, 2014. The Jayhawks have won the last three at Texas.