LUBBOCK, Texas — Questions regarding the defensive abilities Kansas brings to the basketball court have been raised throughout the season.
Lack of depth is another factor, especially since fatigue can be an element all teams deal with as part of the February grind.
The No. 3 Jayhawks (21-3, 9-2 Big 12) faced that problem in their last defeat, a homecourt loss in which they surrendered a 14-point halftime lead to Iowa State. Yet two days later, at Kansas State, the Jayhawks looked refreshed in a 74-71 victory, which enabled them to remain first in the Big 12 entering another road test Saturday at Texas Tech (16-8, 4-7).
“Our energy was a lot better,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Our first-shot defense was really good. We didn’t rebound the ball as well as we’d like to, but I actually thought we competed hard defensively.
“Even though it may seem like a minor thing, our hands (created) some steals that led to four, six or eight points, which are points you don’t have to earn when you’re playing against a pretty solid defensive team.”
One steal, by Frank Mason III, did not result in a basket because the senior point guard committed a turnover racing to the other end of the court.
Still, it ranks as the Jayhawks’ most memorable hustle plays to date. Mason dove into press row at Kansas State, regrouped, jumped on top of a table to return to the court, then flew to the ball and stole a pass from the unsuspecting Wildcats.
“Dribbling it off his leg out of bounds kind of negated the hustle,” Self cracked. “But if he’d have finished that play, that would go down as the best hustle play in college basketball this year.”
It definitely reinforced that Kansas can be motivated to play tough defense.
The Jayhawks are just as apt, however, to pose problems with their offensive might.
They lead the Big 12 at making field goals (49.5 percent) and 3-pointers (41.7), and also pace the conference with a 39.8 rebounding average. Mason tops the league in scoring with a 20.4-point average. Another senior, forward Landen Lucas, is averaging a league-best 11.5 rebounds in Big 12 play.
Kansas is not exactly running away from the rest of the league. It leads Baylor by one game and seven of the Jayhawks’ 11 conference matchups have been decided by single digits.
“We talk about it every day right before the game. You know it’s going to be a good game because we get everybody’s best shot, and everybody wants to see us lose,” said junior guard Devonte’ Graham.
That mindset for opponents is intensified by the Jayhawks’ run of consecutive league titles. Another crown this season would be their 13th in a row and tie a Division I record set by UCLA from 1967-79.
The next challenger, Texas Tech, expects its first sellout of the season in 15,098-seat United Supermarkets Arena. The Red Raiders, who have lost four of their last six, have a balanced scoring attack led by junior guard Keenan Evans (14.4) and junior forward Zach Smith (13.0).
In each of its last three defeats, Texas Tech was locked in a one-possession game inside the final minute.
“It’s frustrating as a coach because I love our team, I love our guys, I love Texas Tech,” said Chris Beard, who is in his first season as the Raiders’ head coach after previously assisting Bob and Pat Knight. “I would do anything possible to get these guys over the hump of these one-possession games.”
Kansas has won 15 straight in the series, including an 85-68 home win over Texas Tech on Jan. 7.