Is Oklahoma State the team that finally ends KU’s Big 12 title streak?

The warning signs scream the end of a streak.

Oklahoma State is a bad matchup for Kansas. Oklahoma State won at Allen Fieldhouse. At ALLEN FIELDHOUSE! Oklahoma State has won seven straight Big 12 games. Kansas lost to TCU two weeks ago.

If you’re a betting man, it might be time to invest in Marcus Smart.

But before we get to the keys to Wednesday’s game and what Kansas has to do to defy the odds, let’s remember this.

Kansas always wins these games.

The ones that you might describe as must-haves. Down 19 to Missouri and in jeopardy of watching the Tigers exit the Big 12 as champs? Got that. Texas starts 11-0 in the Big 12, including a win at the Fieldhouse in 2011. The Jayhawks win the league outright. At Oklahoma in 2009 in late February with first place on the line*, Kansas won that too.

*Worth mentioning some dude by the name of Blake Griffin missed that game. That may have helped.

This run started in 2005, and that one game Kansas always wins was against a top five Oklahoma State squad at the end of February. The Jayhawks were down six with under four minutes to go, and they naturally came back to win and take over first place outright.

Bill Self ALWAYS gets it done in these games. He’s got eight rings that says so.

BUT… If there were ever a time for this streak to come to an end, it would be Wednesday night. And it would be with the team that, as John Gasaway pointed out with his must-read Tuesday Truths, is much closer to the field than any KU teams of the past.

Here’s what has to happen for Self to have a legit chance at No. 9.

1. Make Oklahoma State go at Jeff Withey.

The Cowboys used logic to knock off the Jayhawks at the Fieldhouse.

A shot near Withey is not only best for KU’s defense, it’s also best for KU’s offense. So the Cowboys stayed away.

Outside of second-chance opportunities, the Cowboys attempted only seven layups or dunks in their halfcourt offense and went 1-for-7 on those attempts.

The beauty of this approach was that it wasn’t really outside of what the Pokes usually do. They are a jump-shooting team.

According to Hoop-Math.com, 38 percent of their attempts are 2-point jumpers, 32 percent are threes and 30 percent are at the rim. In comparison, KU attempts 42 percent of its shots at the rim.

The team that has the most similar offensive approach in the Big 12 is Kansas State, and KU was able to bait K-State into entering the Withey zone last Monday. He had five blocks.

It helps that K-State has true big men in Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson. The more Oklahoma State plays its statue, Philip Jurick, the better for KU. He only played 15 minutes in the first meeting, partly because of foul trouble — he had four.

The matchup nightmares for Withey are against big men who can shoot from the perimeter. Against Oklahoma, he didn’t want to go out to guard Romero Osby on the perimeter, and Osby took advantage.

The one nice thing for Withey against the Cowboys is that the players he will guard are not threats to shoot, especially Jurick.

2. Improve ball-screen defense.

The word is out in the Big 12. If you don’t have a big man who can shoot, bring Withey away from the basket by ball-screening with his man as much as possible.

Self has his team guarding ball screens differently, depending on whether it’s in the middle of the court or on the wing.

The Cowboys like to run a lot of ball screens on the wing, and the Jayhawks were burned a couple times in the first meeting.

KU’s goal is to hedge with the big man and force the guard toward the sideline or to show and recover. The key for the big man is to not allow the ball-handler to turn the corner and to recover quickly. Here’s an example of a failure to keep the ball on the sideline or recover that turns into a Markel Brown three because of forced help.

Here’s more of how it should look.

On high ball screens in the middle of the court, KU does not hedge with Withey because that’s putting the big man in a tough spot, one where he would likely get a foul if he tried to hedge. Instead, Withey plays back and this allows the guard to get a nice running start.

Here’s an example of how Myck Kabongo used a high ball screen to set up Ioannis Papapetrou for an open three.

Kabongo did a nice job throughout the game of penetrating to pitch. The Longhorns did a terrible job of making shots. From the tip-off to the final under-four timeout, the Horns had 16 threes that I deemed either open or semi-open. They made two.

Oklahoma State’s shooters will not be so giving.

The key for KU is to try to cut off passing lanes to shooters when Smart does penetrate, stay on his hip and try to funnel him to Withey.

Then let Withey be Withey.

3. Hope Le’Bryan Nash doesn’t go off.

Six of the open threes Texas took were attempted by Kevin Young’s man. Another was on Perry Ellis.

It’s likely that whoever is guarding Markel Brown is going to be hugging Brown on the perimeter. Remember what Brown did the first time around. Whoever guards Phil Forte will likely be stuck to him as well. Marcus Smart, like Kabongo, is going to force help.

And like KU played it against Texas, the four man is the logical choice to play sort of a safety role, as Young was doing in the clip above that led to Papapetrou’s open three.

It’s never a great game plan to hope something happens, but the numbers support the Jayhawks in that they can hope Le’Bryan Nash will not burn them from deep. Nash has made only 9 of 41 of his threes this year. Nash is dangerous when he attacks and he could burn KU if this is his approach.

If he settles for threes, that’s a risk that could pay off for the Jayhawks.

4. Rebound.

If there was a statistical anomaly to KU’s loss in Lawrence, it was that the Pokes dominated the offensive glass, getting back 45.2 percent of their misses and scoring 26 second-chance points that afternoon.

At the time, the Cowboys were the worst offensive rebounding team in the Big 12 during conference play. They have since risen to eighth.

Kansas is the second-best defensive rebounding team in the Big 12, but a poor performance on the boards is not unusual. Texas, for instance, grabbed 40.8 of its misses on Saturday. Luckily, the Horns could not throw it in from anywhere and scored only eight second-chance points.

The key, obviously, will be keeping Smart off the glass. He simply out-muscled KU’s guards in the first game and pulled down eight offensive rebounds. That’s another reason why KU needs Withey in the paint. He needs to rebound. And when he’s forced to help, the guards and Young will need to do a better job of boxing out.

Last year, Thomas Robinson could do that on his own. This year the Jayhawks have to do it collectively.

5. Confident KU must show up.

The perception is that the Jayhawks are back after pounding K-State and Texas, but those games happened in the Fieldhouse. Now, the Jayhawks have to prove that their swag can travel.

The swag-o-meter tends to hit 360 Ben McLemore dunks when they’re making shots. McLemore, in particular, needs to make shots. Naadir Tharpe needs to continue playing well. (Tharpe had a quiet, yet solid, three assists and no turnovers in 15 minutes against Texas.) Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson need to hit open jumpers.

What gets lost in all the bricks from the three-game losing streak is KU’s defense was very un-KU, and that factored into the offensive struggles.

That’s why most of the keys on Wednesday center around defense. Good defense usually leads to good offense, because it gets the Jayhawks easy buckets. Withey blocks move the swag-o-meter. This team thrives off those buckets his defense creates.

A Withey block and a couple jumpers falling early would be very beneficial for the Jayhawks in the confidence department.

Smart made them pout. Their pride needs to motivate them to get payback.

***

So there you have it, five things that must happen to keep Smart from doing back-flips. It’s as tough as any must-have Big 12 game the Jayhawks have had. Oklahoma State is not a great matchup and has not lost a conference home game.

The streak could very well end.

Or Self could do what he does. 

Collect rings.

About The Author

C.J. Moore is the Lead College Basketball Writer at Bleacher Report. He is a University of Kansas grad and a basketball nerd. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

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