KU beats Baylor, accomplishes something rare in college basketball
No team had played four straight ranked opponents and won all four games since 1997 ... until Kansas did it in this four-game stretch that culminated late Monday with a win over Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse.
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Wayne Selden was on the right block when Perry Ellis tapped a ball that seemed certain to land in the seats, and I have no idea why Selden thought he could save it.
"I thought the ball was going out of bounds," said Baylor guard Brady Heslip, and that makes two of us. But Selden, for some reason, thought he could save it. So he took off running and dove headfirst, like a superhero, into the crowd.
A moment later the ball was in the hands of Joel Embiid, who made a little hook, increased Kansas' lead to nine, and Baylor never again got close enough to threaten in a game that finished 78-68. By now, you've probably seen the highlight, which means you likely know that Selden's foot was out of bounds before he jumped. But the officials somehow missed that. So the play is recorded as an awesome assist instead of a costly turnover, and, either way, to focus on that detail is to miss the larger point, which is this: Bill Self has a future lottery pick willing to dive into the stands for loose balls, and this is precisely why KU is developing into the nation's most dangerous team.
The Jayhawks were always going to be talented.
Now they're talented and tenacious.
They're also the first Division I team in 17 years to play four consecutive games against ranked opponents and win all four of those games. The streak started with an 86-60 win over No. 25 Kansas State. What followed was a 77-70 win over No. 8 Iowa State, an 80-78 win over No. 9 Oklahoma State and this 78-68 win over No. 24 Baylor in which Perry Ellis and Andrew Wiggins combined for 35 points and 12 rebounds.
"It's a nice accomplishment," Self acknowledged. "But it doesn't mean anything."
I agree with the first part.
Yes, it's a nice accomplishment, if only because it's rare; Self got that right. But I wouldn't go so far as to call it a meaningless accomplishment because it's an accomplishment that serves as undeniable evidence that these Jayhawks can now beat good teams home and away, and that they can do it when they're not playing well is what should terrify all future opponents.
I sat courtside for each of KU's past two wins.
What I saw both times is a team full of pros -- including, possibly, the No. 1 and No. 2 pick of the 2014 NBA Draft -- who collectively seem unstoppable when they're playing well but are still good enough when they're not. When they're clicking, they're capable of taking a 19-point first-half lead against Oklahoma State or a 14-point second-half lead against Baylor. When they're not, they're still big enough, athletic enough and talented enough to get by, and that's the stuff of which national champions are made because no coach can reasonably expect his team to play well for six straight games in the NCAA tournament. At some point, a team has to be able to win a game when it's off, and Kansas is a team that can do that.
"If we don't play our best," Selden said, "we can still pull out the win."
Saturday proved that.
Monday was a reminder.
So now the Jayhawks are 14-4 overall, 5-0 in the Big 12 and on a five-game winning streak heading into Saturday's game at TCU, where they'll be a double-digit favorite and thus expected to improve to 15-4 overall and 6-0 in the Big 12. By the time that (presumably) happens, Kansas will likely have at least a two-game lead over everybody else in the Big 12 considering second-place Kansas State's next two are at Texas (Tuesday) and at Iowa State (Saturday), meaning KU officials can probably go ahead and start designing Big 12 championship rings for the 10th consecutive season.
Final Four rings might not be far behind.
Because these young Jayhawks, most of whom have bright professional futures independently of each other, have enthusiastically tied themselves together in the spirit of accomplishing things at the college level. One game Wiggins is the star. The next game it's Embiid or Ellis. Naadir Tharpe is starting to have his moments more regularly, and now Selden is the guy on a highlight loop diving into a row of people. From my vantage point, none of them appear to mind sharing the spotlight. They just like winning, and that's all they've been doing lately, and they've been doing it on good nights and average nights.
Seasons often have unexpected twists, so I can't promise the Jayhawks are headed for greatness. But the past three days suggested they're running toward it, and they're clearly willing to leap headfirst into the unkown. I, for one, can't wait to see where they land.
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