Conference Call

     It does feel more tangible, it does feel more real. Big 12 conference basketball opened up last night, and it somewhat felt like the season was now truly beginning. That sounds a bit funny I am sure to a Kansas fan, since the Jayhawks play a cavalcade of games again real quality opposition, but there is something different about taking on a league rival, a team you will play at least once more.

     Eight of the league’s ten teams were in action last night, and the biggest takeaway would probably be that three of the four games were won by the road team. The exception, of course, was Kansas, which kept Oklahoma at arms-length in a grinding 70-63 win. There are so many things that are déjà vu for the Jayhawks, and winning in the league opener is no exception. Make it 28 straight Big 12 openers in the win column.

     This game was pretty much standard issue for KU this year. They win, but the style points are at a minimum. Bill Self this season has played the role of a Hall of Fame jockey who doesn’t have his top thoroughbred under him, and has to go to the whip to get to the finish line. The Jayhawks have consistently had trouble putting opponents away. In this game they led by fifteen at the half, but they let that edge shrivel down before restoring it to thirteen with seven minutes to go. That was not the final word either though, as Oklahoma would close to within four in the last minute, but Kansas did what they do, eventually post the W. As the always reliable Jesse Newell pointed out in the Star in an analysis this week, close games are a Bill Self forte, now 24-3 in Big 12 regular season games decided by ten points or less.

     Two of the best signs in a game marked by lackluster execution by the Jayhawks, were that they won on a night where Dedrick Lawson was a mere mortal, and they got a second straight effective game out of Quentin Grimes. Expected to be an impact freshman, he has been enigmatic at best. But 16 and 14 in his last two games perhaps shows signs of life from a player averaging about half of that, although his 1-6 from three-point range continued his sub thirty percent woes from deep.

     Kansas has only dropped one game this year, so they have had a knack for getting the job done, but for those with more than a rooting interest on their squad’s games, it is revealing as to their quality of play that they fell below .500 against the spread this year. None of MY money has been spilled, but it’s likely Kansas will have to have a better effort Saturday when they play Iowa State in Ames. And you know what, the evidence is they will find a way. By the way, Oklahoma is now 11-1-1 against the spread this year, easily the best in the country.

     Saturday’s Jayhawk opponents, the Cyclones, were one of the three road winners last night, and they and Texas Tech appear poised to be the major challengers to the Kansas conference title streak, if there actually is to be one. Tech was picked to finish seventh in the league, but that appears way off. They have lost only once, and played Duke pretty tough in that one.

     The thing I noticed last night in winning at one of the league’s toughest venues at West Virginia last night was the consistently audible squeaking of sneakers when the Red Raiders were on defense, which tells you two things. Chris Beard’s crew is hustling on defense, and it’s hard for West Virginia’s fans to get excited watching their team play offense in the 62-59 loss by the Mountaineers.

     The selected challenger to the Jayhawks was supposed to be Kansas State, but this season has all the looks of star-crossed and disappointing. Bruce Weber likely feels a bit foolish right now. He is a heart-on-his-sleeve guy, so his preseason “no respect” campaign, despite a number 12 ranking and the choice as second best in the Big 12, was no doubt genuine, not calculated. But when healthy early on they were lackluster, and now they aren’t even healthy.

     Weber has to hope they bottomed out with last night’s 67-47 wipeout at Bramledge Coliseum to Texas. Playing without Dean Wade AND Kamau Stokes is certainly an excuse, but the fact is that even in the first nine games that Wade played, the ‘Cats weren’t lighting up the scoreboard, and when Stokes joined him on the sidelines last night, they were noncompetitive. Tasked with the pressure of picking up the slack, Barry Brown went scoreless in the first half, and scored only eight. It was the fourth time in the last six games K-State scored less than sixty.

     The eye test is also an eye-sore right now. Against a Texas team that has losses to Radford, VCU and Providence, K-State often ran the shot clock way down before getting anything moving offensively, and allowed a 33 percent three-point shooting team to hit almost half of their 27 tries. That is not going to work for a Wildcat team that is going to have to ride their defense.

     There is a certain melancholy to this. After finally garnering some respect with their Elite Eight showing last year (although not enough for Weber’s liking), and having every significant piece back, they have the look of a team that the coach has lost. I feel bad for Weber. He likely wasn’t all that comfortable tooting his own horn, and now the notes are sour. He has turned things around before within seasons, but Wade’s return is very questionable, and some of the cool stories that were crafted last March by players like Cartier Diarra and Mike McGuirl seemed like mere moments in time rather than building blocks.

     Letting the home opener get away looks especially bad right now, since K-State is going to have to try and right the ship with a looming stretch of at Texas Tech Saturday, followed by West Virginia and then two more roadies at Iowa State and Oklahoma. Two weeks from now, all the good will that Bruce Weber had finally garnered might be right out the window. It’s a daunting challenge.

     It was just the first snapshot for the league last night, but it was an interesting one. As in a few of the years of the record streak, Kansas looks a bit vulnerable. But it is always a fool’s errand to do anything but pick the Jayhawks, especially when an expected prime contender looks anything but.

     I’m not quite sure why it felt bigger and more interesting last night. Even Bill Self has said that people don’t appreciate conference titles as much as they should. Of course, he is referring to his own fans. If, say, Tech won the league, there would be a major party in Lubbock. That’s because nobody really thinks the Jayhawks can be knocked off. But to me, the start of the attempt was fun to watch.

     Even if it seems inevitable that number fifteen is on the way.

Danny Clinkscale