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Could 2019 Be the Year Somebody Dethrones Kansas in the Big 12?

LaGerald Vick, Kansas
In an environment where one-and-dones are the norm, coaches leave for bigger money and
opportunities the first chance they get, and transfers are at all-time high, remaining consistent in the world of college basketball seems near impossible. Yet, Kansas hoops has been able to overcome these trends and even use them to their advantage, entering this season with a streak of 14 straight regular season Big 12 Titles. In any league that would be incredible, but it becomes even more impressive when you consider the amount of talent that arrives in the league every year, and the big-time money other athletic departments have put down to stop the Jayhawks. The preseason No. 1 entering 2018-2019, the Jayhawks looked well-prepped to once again defend their conference title streak and impressed in the non-conference beating Michigan State, Tennessee and defending National Champion Villanova. However, early Big 12 play has been extremely precarious; the Jayhawks were pounded by 17 on the road against Iowa State early on and just recently lost to West Virginia, who was 0-5 in the conference at that point. The Jayhawks have still managed to get out to a 5-2 conference record, and still remain the favorite in the unforgiving league. Yet, at some point, their streak in the Big 12 has to end. Could this be the season somebody finally dethrones the Jayhawks?

Its important to realize that while this team has suffered some hiccups, they still are one of the most talented teams Bill Self has ever coached in Lawrence. Thats saying a lot, considering Self has been to three Final Fours, but there is depth, experience and clear NBA potential dripping from the roster. Dedric Lawson, who transferred from Memphis along with his brother K.J., has been nearly unstoppable for much of the season. Lawson is posting numbers of 19.5 PPG and 10.9 RPG while shooting 53% from the field, and if not for some of the big-time shots he hit in their rematch this week against ISU, KU may have fallen to 4-3 in the conference. On the wings, veteran LaGerald Vick and Marcus Garrett are crucial defenders and do the small things really well. There is also the backcourt, guided by skilled freshman Quentin Grimes and a number of transfers. Yet, this particular Kansas team also differs from past editions pretty significantly. Self has really relied on savvy, veteran guards to engineer his offense for some time (Sherron Collins, Frank Mason, Devonte Graham), something he sorely lacks on this team. He just doesn't have the veteran presence on the court he needs at such a crucial position, which has really hurt this team when they can't get into an offensive flow or need a big basket. Defensively, this team is also much weaker than past Jayhawk teams, particularly down low. The loss of big man Udoka Azuikbe for the season to a hand injury, has really hurt this team on both sides. Azuikbe is a load to handle on the offensive end, but is perhaps even more important defensively, where he can block shots and anchor the paint. Lawson nor many of the other Kansas big men are great defenders, which has lead to teams averaging just over 70 points per game against KU, 146th nationally. It will be a unique challenge, but Self has proven he can adjust on the fly with his teams, and the depth this roster has overall is much less of an issue than in past years. However, even with a skilled team the road is never easy in this conference, and they'll face plenty of resistance. Here is a look at the teams with the best shot at ending a 15th consecutive KU conference title:

Kansas State Wildcats (15-4 overall, 5-2 Big 12): The Jayhawks' instate rival won't roll over, as last year's Sweet 16 team still has plenty of fight left in them. The Wildcats aren't a very explosive offensive team, but their defense is top-notch, allowing just 58.5 PPG (4th in the nation). This team becomes even more dangerous once veteran forward Dean Wade gets fully healthy, as he is still recovering from a foot injury suffered in December. They aren't a flashy team but they are well-coached and experienced, they should offer plenty of challenges to KU.

Texas Tech Red Raiders (15-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12): Chris Beard has done a tremendous job rebuilding in Lubbock after coming over from Arkansas-Little Rock, and this Red Raiders squad is a legit contender to win the conference. Much like K-State, the Red Raiders are led by a suffocating defense, although they do have some really dangerous offensive weapons. That includes talented guard Jarrett Culver (18.7 PPG) and South Dakota transfer Matt Mooney. Can that defense be enough to end the Jayhawks' streak?

Iowa State Cyclones (14-5 overall, 4-3 Big 12): Even though Iowa State recently lost at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, they're still a very dangerous team in this conference. After all, they did smack around Kansas by 17 at home at the start of league play, and they're led by possible Big 12 Player of the Year Marial Shayok, a transfer from Virginia.

Baylor Bears (12-6 overall, 4-2 Big 12): After a weak non-conference showing, Baylor has played very well in conference play and they're still a threat to win the Big 12. They've beat Iowa State and Texas Tech at home and went toe-to-toe with Kansas, losing by five. Superb guard Makai Mason continues to lead an efficient offense with sophomore Tristan Clark swatting away everything in the post (3rd in conference with 2.3 BPG). Of course, any hope of a Big 12 Title would center around beating KU on the road, but don't count out the Bears just yet.

Its still less than halfway through Big 12 play at this point, and plenty of time for the conference title picture to further figure itself out. Right now, despite some frustrating losses on the road against ISU and to a lowly West Virginia team, the Jayhawks still remain in prime position. However, they're going to have to deal with the continued drain of a long conference season, and their schedule only gets tougher, with four of their last seven games being difficult road treks. Yet, if I had to put money on it, I'd still roll with Kansas over the field. There is so much talent and depth on this roster, and the Jayhawks also have a clear-cut No. 1 scorer in Lawson. To fully lock down a 15th straight title, the Jayhawks really need one of their guards to really step up and be the leader they've lacked at times. Whether that is Grimes, Devon Dotson or Charlie Moore, it will be a crucial first step towards any postseason run. Figuring out their defensive woes will also be crucial: how are the Jayhawks going to win if they struggle to score against defensive-oriented teams like Texas Tech or Kansas State? At some point, this title run has to end, but if Self can figure out these issues and adjust like he does so well, they should be ready to hang yet another banner in Lawrence.

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