KANSAS (14-1, 2-0): After beating teams by an average of 26.6 points per game in December, Kansas has hit a January lull. In the last three games, KU has averaged 12.3 turnovers while forcing just 10.3 turnovers per game. Their defensive field-goal percentage (38 percent) ranks third in the country. Last season, Kansas took both regular-season matchups with Baylor before falling to the Bears in the Big 12 tournament. Self is 28-6 in Big Monday games.
RPIs as of Sunday: BU 43, KU 3
The defenders were sandwiched around him, duty-bound to deny him the ball. One defender leaned on his 7-foot frame from behind, a forearm in his midsection. The other shaded his front hip.
Jeff Withey is still getting used to moments like this. And for now, it seems, so is Kansas.
During KU’s underwhelming start to the Big 12 season, opponents have made it a priority to shadow Withey in the paint. First it was Iowa State, which also tried to lure Withey outside the paint on defense. And then it was Texas Tech on Saturday. The Red Raiders dropped two defenders inside against Withey, leaving forward Kevin Young free on the high block. The strategy worked to a degree; KU trudged through a sloppy first half before Young came alive in an eventual 60-46 victory.
“I feel like a lot of people are going to start playing us like that,” Withey said. “… And we just have to learn from it.”
The process can continue on Monday night, when No. 6 Kansas plays host to Baylor in a Big Monday showdown between two undefeated teams in the Big 12. It’s a marquee game, especially in this year’s watered-down Big 12, and it comes with KU trying to emerge from its January rut.
Three games, three marginal performances. A battle with Temple. An overtime win against Iowa State. And a flat performance against Texas Tech on Saturday.
So what’s the answer? After the victory in Lubbock, KU coach Bill Self acknowledged that his team needed to get Withey more touches. Withey recorded just three field-goal attempts against Texas Tech. And although that number is a little misleading — Withey also shot 10 free throws — it underscored Kansas’ latest challenge. Even with Ben McLemore emerging as a go-to scorer, the Jayhawks need to find ways to play inside-out.
“He’s got to get the ball more,” Self said of Withey, “and it’s going to be difficult if they don’t guard Kevin.”
Young, a 6-foot-8 power forward, is not the type of player to camp out at the elbow and knock down 15-foot jumpshots. And KU’s two other forwards — Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor — were largely non-factors against Texas Tech. In the last three games, Ellis and Traylor have combined to average just 3.3 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Baylor, meanwhile, brings a rare species into Monday’s matchup — a frontcourt player that will stand taller than Withey. Freshman forward Isaiah Austin is a 7-1 center with perimeter skills.
“He’s a four-man,” Self said, “but almost with three-man skills. He can really shoot the ball, and he’s 7-foot tall.”
Despite the lackluster Big 12 start, the Jayhawks (14-1, 2-0 Big 12) can squeeze out some early-season separation with a victory tonight against the Bears (11-4, 3-0 in the Big 12). And for Kansas, this is importance. When Self filled out his Big 12 preseason poll, he penciled in Baylor at the No. 1 spot. Self, of course, was prohibited from selecting his own team. So he had to pick someone.
But Baylor, featuring point guard Pierre Jackson, the preseason choice for Big 12 player of the year, fit the description. The Bears’ have Jackson, who is averaging more than 19 points per game — but they also have sharpshooter Brady Heslip and Austin, who was a consensus top-five recruit.
“He’s not their only weapon,” Self said of Jackson. “Good gosh, Heslip shoots it as well as anybody in our league; Austin is probably as highly touted as anybody our league has had in the last few years. And they’re good.”
After weeks of two-a-day practices and long film sessions over the holidays, Withey said the Jayhawks are ready to embrace the Big 12 grind and all its challenges. Last season, a January victory over Baylor on Big Monday was a catalyst in Kansas’ run to an eighth straight Big 12 title. For Kansas, the hope is that Baylor will bring out the Jayhawks’ best once again.
“It’s a big game,” Self said. “Anytime you play at home, you need to try to hold serve at home. This is a big game, without question. It’s one that our guys will look forward to playing, because Baylor has had great success the last few years.”