The Kansas Jayhawks (22-6, 13-2) try to wrap up an outright Big 12 regular season championship with a win against the rejuvenated Oklahoma State Cowboys (18-10, 6-9). Historically, the Jayhawks don’t always play will in Stillwater, and the Cowboys are trying to play themselves back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
Oklahoma State is an extremely dangerous opponent. They spent the first part of the season ranked in the top 10 and the top five. With such a veteran roster, it was unexpected that they fell apart in conference play.
At one point this season, they were 15-2 but they dropped 8 out of nine Big 12 games, including an unfathomable 7 games in a row. Star guard, and preseason National Player of the Year, and All-American first team candidate, Marcus Smart, suffered a couple of in-game meltdowns.
Smart is back from his three-game suspension, and the Cowboys have won two games in a row, albeit against the weakest two teams in the league – Texas Tech and TCU.
Oklahoma State’s back is against the wall. If they want any chance to make it into the NCAA Tournament, they need to win their last three regular season games against good opponents – Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State. Lose any of these three, and the Cowboys finish with less the 9 wins in conference. No Big 12 team has ever finished below .500 in league play and made it to the Big Dance.
The Kansas Jayhawks are playing for a number one seed now. They cannot lose anymore conference games in the regular season, and expect to earn a top seed with 7 or more losses. They need to be ready for one of the more physical teams in the league. The Cowboys will try to out muscle the Jayhawks, so Kansas has to be ready to respond with a toughness that escapes them on occasion.
They must also contain the Cowboys’ top four scorers, all adept at getting the ball through the nylon. Smart averages 17.4 points a game (and 5.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, and 2.6 steals), Markel Brown drops in 16.8, Le’Bryan Nash nets 14.4, and Phil Forte III adds 13.3. These four account for 62 or Oklahoma State’s 81 points a contest.
Forte nails 45.8% of his shots from behind the arc, and scored 23 points against Kansas in their previous meeting, including hitting 7 of 10 from three. Kansas defenders must know where Forte is at all times, and not let him have the space to get those 3-pointers off.
The Kansas Jayhawks have been doing a great job protecting the ball of late, and they will have to do it again as there is sure to be a raucous crowd in Stillwater on Saturday.
Defense is also a key. The Kansas Jayhawks have been showing signs of life on the defensive end, though inconsistent. They have been showing improvement, but they will need to be very good to beat this the Cowboys on the road when they could only squeak out a 2-point victory against them in Allen Fieldhouse.
Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis need to be the stalwarts for the Kansas Jayhawks in this one. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid will need to bring their A game, but Tharpe and Ellis can make this team into a great one with better, more consistent play. This will be a good test if these two can step it up as leaders.
Look for a hotly contested, emotional game on Saturday night. These two teams were considered the cream of the crop in the Big 12 when the season started. Oklahoma State has faltered but the talent is still there. They will be fired up at home.