LAWRENCE, Kan. — There have been plenty of times over the past 14 years that Kansas was supposed to have a tough test in the Big 12, only for the Jayhawks to emerge on top when March rolled around.
The year Texas had Kevin Durant, or Oklahoma boasted Buddy Hield. The years that Jayhawks coach Bill Self had to replace all five of his starters, or that some other up-and-coming program was stocked with the kind of talent that Kansas seems to get every season.
This was not supposed to be one of those years.
Yes, the Jayhawks lost their entire backcourt of Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman to the NBA. And yes, rival Kansas State returned almost its entire roster from a team that went to the Elite Eight last year, giving the Wildcats a real feeling of confidence heading into the season.
But the Jayhawks merely restocked with a bevy of high-profile transfers and five-star recruits, and the result was a No. 1 ranking that they held through much of the nonconference slate. It wasn’t until this past weekend against Arizona State that they lost their first game — without injured big man Udoka Azubuike — that they dropped further than second in the AP poll.
Now, the fourth-ranked Jayhawks (10-1) have a final tuneup Saturday against Eastern Michigan before setting their sights on an unprecedented 15th consecutive conference championship.
“The reality of it is we weren’t going to run the table,” Self said. “Let’s not get carried away, and I hate saying this — you never want to lose — but certainly you’d rather learn from a nonconference loss than a conference loss, so hopefully we get something from (the loss to Arizona State). I think it’s a teaching moment.”
Meanwhile, the Jayhawks might have much more competition in the Big 12 than previously thought.
The Wildcats (9-2) are coming off an impressive win over Vanderbilt despite losing preseason player of the year Dean Wade to a foot injury. No. 11 Texas Tech (11-1) leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and just gave Duke all it could handle. Iowa State (10-2) got Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young back from injuries last week and has shown plenty in their absence.
“We’ve got good players,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “If you think about it, Dean was the only underclassman on the first team All-Big 12 last year, and Barry (Brown) was second team. So two underclassmen in an unbelievable league, probably the toughest league I’ve been a part of.
“To me,” Weber said, “I don’t think we’ve gotten as much recognition as we should. But I don’t think they care. They’re just driven to be good players and that’s important for me.”
They’re also driven to knock the Jayhawks from their lofty perch in the Big 12.
As the league prepares to open its double-round-robin slate next week, here are some story lines:
RED RAIDERS RISING: Chris Beard’s team was supposed to take a step back after losing All-Big 12 guard Keenan Evans and freshman standout Zhaire Smith to the pros. But sophomore Jarrett Culver has been playing like an All-American and the Red Raiders have shut down just about everyone they’ve played, even causing the Blue Devils problems in their game at Madison Square Garden.
HEALTHY CYCLONES: Iowa State’s only losses have come to Arizona and Iowa, and neither of those is particularly damaging. Marial Shayok has flourished, averaging more than 20 points, and now he’s got a couple of running mates to take off some of the scoring pressure. Wigginton is back from his foot issue and Solomon from a groin injury that sidelined both the first two months of the season.
TOUGH TCU: It didn’t take long for Jamie Dixon to turn around TCU, and now the Horned Frogs (11-1) think they can compete for a Big 12 title. They had an early slip-up against Lipscomb but breezed past the rest of their nonconference schedule, winning the Diamond Head Classic earlier this week.
SOONERS OR LATER: Lon Kruger has had plenty of teams capable of giving Kansas a run for Big 12 superiority, but this one is putting together a sneak attack. Christian James and No. 25 Oklahoma (11-1) have quietly had one of the better nonconference runs, their only loss coming against Wisconsin.
BUMPY COUNTRY ROADS: West Virginia (7-4) returned plenty of talent from last season, including Esa Ahmad and Sagabe Konate. But little has gone right for the Mountaineers, beginning with an early loss to Buffalo and defeats to Western Kentucky, Florida and Rhode Island.