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Bill Self stood in front of a mural plastered on the wall just outside the Kansas locker room in Allen Fieldhouse depicting the Jayhawks' many championship rings, and he mused about the importance of his team's trip to Baylor on Saturday.
“I don't have to tell them,” Self said. “They know how many games are left in the league, and I'm not approaching it like a league race. I'm approaching it like an opportunity to play a terrific team on a big stage away from home. The league race is not something I'm going to emphasize, because they're probably already talking about it.”
Indeed, the biggest showdown in the Big 12 this season might just be the biggest showdown in all of college hoops.
The top-ranked Bears (24-1, 13-0) roll into the game carrying a league-record 23-game winning streak, highlighted by their first road victory in 18 tries against Kansas (23-3, 12-1). They could deal a staggering blow to the Jayhawks' hopes of adding another championship ring to that wall.
Baylor also could solidify its position as the No. 1 overall seed in next month's NCAA Tournament, even to the point the Bears may not need to win the league's postseason tournament to earn it.
The stakes could hardly be higher for a pair of programs that have each spent time at No. 1 this season, and that have played four of their last eight match-ups when both of them were ranked in the top 5.
“When you’ve been around the league as long as I have,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said, “you’ve had a chance to see just the great players, great coaches, and also the great environments and see just how hard it is to accomplish what the team has accomplished, with getting the all-time longest Big 12 winning streak. At the same time this group has stayed humble. They have stayed hungry. And right now it’s just one day at a time and focusing on the present.”
That's because what happened in Allen Fieldhouse last month has little impact on what will happen at Ferrell Center.
The Bears, who had never won a road game against a top-five team, proceeded to handle the Jayhawks quite easily in a 67-55 victory. Jared Butler led the way with 22 points, including a run of 10 straight in the final 8 minutes that clinched the game, and Baylor's confounding defense forced Kansas into committing 14 turnovers that led to too many easy baskets.
While both teams haven't lost since that cold January day, they are also markedly different. Baylor could have a less-than-healthy MaCio Teague after its second-leading scorer missed the past two games with a wrist injury. Kansas will have a healthy Devon Dotson after the All-America candidate sustained a hip pointer in the teams' first meeting.
The Jayhawks also have changed their approach after the Bears held them to their lowest offensive output at the Phog since the 2000 season. Self jettisoned his preferred approach with two big men for a four-guard lineup, and the result has been some of their most explosive and efficient scoring performances of the season.
“Some teams tend to get better. Some teams — because of injuries, illnesses, suspensions — they taper off. I think Kansas is one of those teams that has gotten better,” Drew said. “Offensively and defensively they are executing at a high rate. Coach Self’s teams are never going to beat themselves. They are always going to have talented players. But any team is at their best when they know the roles of everybody, and it looks like they’ve really settled into what and how. "
The Jayhawks are hardly accustomed to being the hunter in high-profile match-ups. While they are 0-2 against top five teams this season, they have won 20 of the last 24 such games. And the last time they faced a No. 1 team on the road was March 8, 1958, when they headed down the road to beat Kansas State.
“The crowd's going to be electric,” Baylor forward Freddie Gillespie said. “I've had more ticket requests for this one than I've had in my three years at Baylor. So that's always cool. I still get the same amount (of tickets), I just have to tell a lot of people no. .... It might not be like the Phog, but we'll see if we can get pretty close."