Heading into Saturday’s matchup in Lawrence, Texas and Kansas are the only remaining undefeated teams in conference play, but the two teams have taken different paths to get there.
The second-ranked Jayhawks (18-0, 3-0 Big 12) still have a perfect record and received six first-place votes in the most recent media poll. But prior to stomping Baylor on Monday, Kansas was defeating conference opponents by an average of only 4 points.
In non-conference play, the Jayhawks scored marquee wins against Arizona and then-No. 13 Memphis, both at home, although they’ve only faced one ranked opponent and struggled against Michigan and UCLA.
“Where we are right now is we are a team that has a chance to be really good,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self on Monday. “I think our ceiling is high.”
In contrast, Texas (15-3, 3-0) has beaten its three league opponents by an average of 24 points, including a blowout of No. 11 Texas A&M on Wednesday. Its non-conference resume includes road wins over Michigan State and North Carolina, plus a win against Illinois in New York City. The team’s three losses came from No. 5 Pittsburgh, No. 8 Connecticut and Southern California.
“I do think our schedule has helped us, no question about it. We’ve learned from everywhere we’ve been,” said Texas head coach Rick Barnes. “Going to Greensboro to play North Carolina, yeah, there’s no doubt that it’s helped us.”
The Longhorns started the season outside of The Associated Press Top 25 while Kansas has crept up five spots from its original rank of No. 7. Both have built their rise on stifling team defense and good rebounding.
Both teams score well, averaging more than 75 points per contest, although Kansas has the best field-goal conversion rate in the nation at 52.4 percent.
Both teams move the ball efficiently, although Kansas averages nearly 4 more assists per game. Running a motion-heavy offense this season with plenty of off-ball picks and screens, Texas is able to use the inside-out combination of Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton to keep teams guessing.
“I think Kansas is the best team in the country from what I’ve seen,” Barnes said. “It’s a team that — they have it all. There’s nothing they don’t have.”
Thompson, the Longhorns’ leading rebounder and frontcourt scorer, finished with 18 points and six rebounds against A&M on Wednesday and did so against the 6-foot-8 David Loubeau. The Jayhawks have forwards Marcus Morris (6-9), Markieff Morris (6-10) and Thomas Robinson (6-9), who all three average at least 6.1 rebounds per game.
“It might be harder for Tristan this game because we’re playing against guys that are that much bigger,” Texas forward Gary Johnson said.
In addition, Marcus is averaging 24.7 points per Big 12 outing and has taken over games single-handedly versus Baylor and Nebraska.
Kansas also has a true combo guard in freshman Josh Selby, while Texas shuffles through at least three point guards in its backcourt. Selby, averaging 12.1 points per game, is the best guard the Longhorn defense faces since Connecticut’s Kemba Walker scored 22 points on Jan. 8.
“It’s a big game,” Johnson said. “We have a lot riding on it, so it’s going to be huge for us.”
Big might be an understatement. Johnson and the other Texas upperclassmen will be making their final visit to Allen Fieldhouse as Longhorns. They lost last time, 83-73 in March 2009, and Texas has never won there in school history. In an arena known for its volume and hostility, Kansas is on a 69-game winning streak.
“We don’t want to get them on a good roll,” Johnson said. “I think it’s key for us to try to make a statement defensively, to try to take the crowd out of it.”
For Kansas and Texas, respectively ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12, Saturday’s contest is the biggest challenge of their nascent conference schedules and could go a long way in deciding which is the league’s best team.