Jayhawks look to bring home hardware

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The Jayhawks locked up their 10th Big 12 regular season title over the weekend and ensured themselves a difficult road to the championship game of the conference tournament, which begins today in Kansas City.

Kansas, the No. 1 seed, sits in the top half of the bracket along with third-seeded Kansas State — one of only two teams to have beaten Kansas in 2010-11. In its first game, Kansas could also face Nebraska, a team that nearly knocked off KU in Lawrence.

The Jayhawks’ half of the bracket also includes Colorado, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. With their first-round bye, they face either Nebraska or OSU in the second round on Thursday.

“We are playing in Kansas City against rivals that would like nothing more than to beat us to enhance their situation,” said Kansas coach Bill Self on Monday. “Our goal is to go win the tournament.”

Fourth-seeded Kansas State may provide the most daunting obstacle to Kansas repeating as tourney champs. The Wildcats are on a six-game winning run, including victories over then-No. 7 Texas and then-No. 20 Missouri.

The Wildcats’ hot streak all started on Feb. 14, when they defeated top-ranked Kansas 84-86. It was a complete performance from the North division’s second-best team, and their top scorer, Jacob Pullen, put up a career-high 38 points against the Jayhawks, showing that the senior guard can step up in big games. They’re also entering the tournament riding a wave of national recognition, finally making it back it into the most recent Associated Press poll at No. 19.

Kansas State’s strength-of-schedule is one of the highest in the nation at No. 4, according to RealTime RPI. All of that experience against tough competition seems to be paying off as the team hits its stride at the end of the regular season and prepares for the postseason.

Nebraska is no joke, either. The Cornhuskers’ scoring defense is among the top in the Big 12, which Kansas found out when it eked out a close 63-60 victory on Jan. 15.

Still, Kansas is the odds-on favorite to win the tournament, not only because of its immense individual talent — junior Marcus Morris won conference player of the year honors on Sunday — but because Self has been there before, winning it all a record four times. Even with injuries, the Jayhawks look like the strongest team in the Big 12 and the most likely to garner a No. 1 seed.

“It’s a credit to Bill Self and it’s a credit to his assistants,” said Kansas State head coach Frank Martin. “It’s a credit to their efforts in recruiting, their consistency in handling young men, making them perform and getting people to coexist and put their egos aside and play for the unity of the team.”