Kansas returns to a familiar spot, atop Big 12 | College hoops topics

Kansas' Udoka Azubuike (35) trying to block a shot by Kansas State's Xavier Sneed during the first half Saturday.

Love them or hate them, there’s something about the Kansas Jayhawks that’s always familiar, like an old song or a good book that you want to pick up once again.

The Jayhawks, winners of 13 consecutive Big 12 championships, are back to where they are accustomed to being. An impressive 71-66 victory Monday night at West Virginia – their seven straight win over a Top 10 team in a true road game – moved them back into first place in the conference.

Kansas had a rocky few weeks earlier in the season. Ranked No. 2 for back-to-back weeks immediately after Thanksgiving, the Jayhawks lost three games and dropped as low as No. 14. A win Saturday at home over Baylor, coupled with the West Virginia victory, will get them back a single-digit ranking.

The Jayhawks are succeeding with a four-guard lineup that surrounds 7-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike, the NCAA leader in field-goal percentage at 78.1 percent. Seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are sparking the offense with their three-point shooting.

“The reality of it is we’re not changing right now playing four guards,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Our second-best rebounder is 6-foot-5, 180 pounds. We’re not changing that. We’re playing four really average-sized guards. We’re not going to change that.”

Should the Jayhawks go on to win the Big 12 for a 14th straight season, they will break the record they currently share with UCLA.

Camera icon Sue Ogrocki / AP
Are teams figuring out how to defend Oklahoma guard Trae Young (11)?

Trae’s play

Could opposing defenses now have a blueprint for how to stop Trae Young, Oklahoma’s wondrous freshman?

Young had one of the worst games of his short career Tuesday night at Kansas State – 20 points (second-lowest total in college), 6 assists and 12 turnovers in the Sooners’ 87-69 loss. He shot a career-low four free throws.

Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg suggested that Kansas State seemed to have success with its various defenses against Young and that other opponents could copy that plan, which included a box-and-one and blitzing every ball screen set up for Young. In the latter scenario, defenders for both Young and the screener would double-team the freshman.

The Sooners will have indoor “Bedlam” Saturday at Oklahoma State and then host Kansas on Tuesday. Young remains No. 1 in the nation in scoring (29.5 points per game) and assists (9.8 per game) but is averaging 5.2 turnovers, so that will be something to watch.

The Delany experiment

When Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, it opened up the New York market for what long had been considered a Midwestern conference, and gave some ideas to commissioner Jim Delany.

Delany moved the 2018 Big Ten basketball postseason tournament east to Madison Square Garden. Because the tournament will be held one week before the long-established Big East tournament, the Big Ten conference season began in early December, a change that didn’t exactly thrill the member head coaches.

On Saturday, the self-proclaimed World’s Most Famous Arena will host the third annual Big Ten “Super Saturday – College Hoops and Hockey” doubleheader, another Delany creation. Minnesota will take on Ohio State in hoops in the afternoon, and Michigan State in pucks at night.

It will be Minnesota’s home basketball game, meaning the Golden Gophers lose a game at Williams Arena, their true home court. It also will be their third game on a week-long road trip that has included stops at Penn State and Maryland.

“The Big Ten is not doing us any favors,” coach Richard Pitino said. “It’s not fair but, oh well, that’s the way it works.”

Real home-court edge

Southern Methodist, which saw its 33-game home-court winning streak end Jan. 10 against Temple, snapped Wichita State’s 27-game win streak at home this week. What’s even more amazing about the Shockers, however, is that they had won 67 of 68 games at the “Roundhouse” – their nickname for Charles Koch Arena – before the SMU defeat, a run that went back five seasons.

Finding his groove

Already an outstanding defensive player, Texas freshman Mohamed Bamba, who starred at the Westtown School, is finding his offensive game. In his last seven games, the 6-foot-11 Bamba is averaging 14.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.1 blocked shots and shooting 56.8 percent from the field. He has four double-doubles in his six Big 12 games. For the season, he is second in the nation in blocked shots (4.53) and averages 11.9 points and 10.5 rebounds.

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Penn State guard Tony Carr is averaging 19.6 points, tops on the Nittany Lions.

Expatriate of the week

Tony Carr, a graduate of Roman Catholic High School, is leading Penn State in scoring (19.6 points per game), assists (4.8) and three-point percentage (45.3). The 6-foot-5 sophomore, who is second in the Big Ten in scoring, matched his season high with 33 points Monday night in an overtime loss at home to Minnesota. Carr has led the Nittany Lions in scoring nine times this season.

Games of the week

Xavier at Seton Hall, Saturday at 2:30 p.m., Fox 29: These are two of the four teams with two losses in the Big East that are trying to stay close to first-place Villanova. The Musketeers have lost their last two games on the road, and the Pirates were blown out at Creighton last Wednesday.

Florida at Kentucky, Saturday at 8:15 p.m., ESPN:  Though unranked, the Gators hold a half-game lead over No. 17 Auburn in the SEC standings. The Wildcats are making Big Blue Nation restless after blowing a 14-point lead, going 1-of-11 from the arc and committing 16 turnovers in a loss at South Carolina.

West Virginia at Texas Christian, Monday at 9 p.m., ESPN: After rising to No. 2 in the nation, the Mountaineers lost back-to-back games, including one at home to Kansas. Their defense will have to be sharp against the Horned Frogs, one of the nation’s highest-scoring teams at 88.6 points per game.

Clemson at Virginia, Tuesday at 7 p.m., ACC Network: Along with Villanova, the Cavaliers are the only one-loss Division I team remaining. They enter the weekend with defensive numbers that continue to be eye-popping – first in points allowed at 52.9 per game, second in field goal percentage at 34.6.

Kansas at Oklahoma, Tuesday at 7 p.m., ESPN: This game should be entertaining from an offensive standpoint, with Sooners freshman points Trae Young in constant motion and Jayhawks seniors Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk raining three-point shots from everywhere.

Player to watch

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas, G, 6-2, Sr. Raleigh, N.C.

Graham is the Jayhawks’ on-court leader, averaging team highs of 18.3 points, 7.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game. According to Kansas’ game notes, he is the only Division I player in the nation who averages 18 or more points, 7 or more assists, 2 or more steals and fewer than three turnovers. He averages 3.2 three-point baskets. He shoots nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc and 86.5 percent on free throws. He had back-to-back 35-point games earlier this season.