NEW YORK -- After a two-week hiatus, Kansas is likely in position to retake its claim as the No. 1 team in college basketball.
The second-ranked Jayhawks battled to an 87-81 overtime victory in a tremendous NIT Season Tip-Off final against No. 5 Tennessee on Friday night at the Barclays Center.
The KU-UT affair was a rarity in college hoops. After No. 3 Gonzaga beat No. 1 Duke on Wednesday in the Maui title game, Friday night's Brooklyn battle represented the second top-five matchup in the sport in a three-day span. In terms of nonconference play at this point in the calendar, that's something seldom seen.
Both games proved to be terrific. Kansas is now 5-0 with two wins against ranked teams: Michigan State and the Vols. Competing with KU for the No. 1 spot is Gonzaga, fresh off a Maui championship. The debate over the No. 1 spot in the polls will occupy discussion in the sport until the AP rankings are revealed Monday afternoon.
But on Friday night, a reminder of why Kansas was projected by many to make the Final Four. KU essentially clinched its win when senior guard Lagerald Vick found a streaking Dedric Lawson in transition, the former Memphis big man slipping past Tennessee's unit as he stepped into the paint and dunked in stride to make it 82-75 with 75 seconds remaining in OT.
Tennessee couldn't overcome that. The build-up to that moment, however, was a terrific back-and-forth.
"You shouldn't apologize for defeating a team that's ranked top-five in the country, and I'm not going to," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "That was a good win."
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes described his team's composure down the stretch of regulation and overtime as "emotional, antsy, jumpy."
In fact, both teams were playing without critical big men down the stretch. Kansas lost center Udoka Azubuike with 4:26 left in regulation after he fouled out on a lazy offensive rebound attempt against Grant Williams. The game was tied at 61 then.
Williams himself picked up his fifth foul with 1:24 to go.
"We may not play a better player than Grant Williams this year," Self said. "He's a load. We were fortunate they missed some 3s early on, which I thought could have easily gone down."
Tennessee took 27 3-pointers all told, which Barnes said was bothersome. UT relying on the long shot was not part of the team's gameplan. Kansas' size down low -- the Jayhawks aren't exceedingly big, but they've got enough -- pushed Tennessee out to the perimeter.
"They stay within their frame of what they're trying to do," Barnes said. "They didn't do one thing different because his teams execute at a very high level. … They know exactly what they're looking for and they do it. We haven't gotten there yet, and it's the next step we can take."
Kansas has the deeper roster, and that depth prevailed come overtime. Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson came off the bench to combine for 17 points; Dedric Lawson had a game-high 24 points, plus 13 rebounds and five assists. Kansas won with some muscle but also scrap. Self said afterward that he's had teams win these kinds of games through grit, some luck, and endurance many times over the years.
"It's OK to win ugly," Self said. "Winning ugly's actually pretty at the end of the day."
It was an Azubuike block that led to a Vick 3-pointer that made it 59-56 with 6:40 to go which gave Kansas its first lead since it was 31-30 in the first half. Vick, who was not expected to return for his senior season, has proved vital in getting KU to 5-0. Kansas entered the day as the No. 5 team in offensive efficiency and the No. 4 team in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Self told CBS Sports afterward that those stats were surprising, due in some part to the fact that no alpha has been established with this team.
"I don't really know what we have yet because, if you watched us play so far or studied us, it's almost been a different guy every night," Self said.
Still, the way Kansas stood strong for 45 minutes will surely show on the tape. Tennessee might be the most physically impressive team KU faces all season long, and losing Azubuike in a 61-61 game to a foul-out was a test of its resoluteness. The Jayhawks passed that test.
Now it gets an eight-day rest before hosting Stanford on Dec. 1. The Jayhawks will probably be the No. 1 team in the the country then. Not bad for a group that's still coming together and still without consistent play from its best projected pro, freshman Quentin Grimes.
Tennessee, meantime, gets a couple of low-major opponents in the coming weeks before it has to face what's likely to be a No. 2-ranked team again. Gonzaga awaits in a neutral-court event in Phoenix on Dec. 9.