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Kansas looking tournament ready

2/25/2014



As talk slowly turns to NCAA tournament preparedness, plenty of teams around the nation come with a caveat.

In East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans can’t wait until they get healthy.

In Syracuse, N.Y., the Orange can’t wait until their offense comes around.

In Lexington, Ky., the Wildcats can’t wait until the kids put it all together.

That's not the case in Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks simply can’t wait until March.

Kansas looks ready now. It is one of the few teams that no longer has a caveat after clinching at least a share of its 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title with an 83-75 win over Oklahoma on Monday.

In doing so the Jayhawks also unofficially served notice to the four potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds: Florida, Wichita State, Arizona and Syracuse -- all projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as top seeds in Monday's Bracketology -- had better finish the regular season strong. KU is looking more and more like a top seed and already has constructed a resume strong enough to snatch one.

It has been an impressive job by KU coach Bill Self to mold a team that starts three freshmen and relies heavily on a fourth coming off the bench. As Kentucky coach John Calipari can attest, it’s not easy relying on freshmen talent.

Kansas took its time getting to this point. Playing a challenging nonconference schedule that included current top-15 teams Florida, Duke, Villanova and San Diego State certainly revealed flaws early on.

A snapshot of the Jayhawks earlier in the season showed a number of problems, including instability at point guard and uncertainty from their most talented player -- freshman forward Andrew Wiggins.

Self appears to have worked all of that out now. Wiggins sent a pretty loud message against Texas on Saturday. The Longhorns shut him down in their first meeting, but he was unstoppable in the rematch, scoring 21 points -- including three 3-pointers.

Junior guard Naadir Tharpe has brought valuable experience to the point guard position that showed late against the Sooners. Twice when Oklahoma had the ball trailing by just one possession late in the second half, Tharpe came up with a steal to prevent the Jayhawks from being tied or losing their lead.

It was Tharpe’s game-high 19 points that led Kansas, which had five players score in double figures. The Jayhawks have four players who average double figures scoring, led by Wiggins’ 16.4 points per game.

That kind of balance is what makes Kansas, which is also shooting more than 50 percent from the floor in conference play, so hard to defend.

The Sooners had a chance to take control late in the first half, as five KU players got into early foul trouble and made limited appearances. Tharpe played nine minutes, Wiggins 10 and Perry Ellis 11 due to early foul trouble.

It mattered little as freshman guard Wayne Selden Jr. scored 13 of his 15 points before halftime. The Jayhawks flexed their depth and, despite having key players on the bench, forged a 42-33 lead at intermission.

Rebounding is also a balanced affair for KU. Five players had at least four boards against the Sooners, and those same five players outrebounded Oklahoma 32-29.

Freshman center Joel Embiid grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for KU. His continued development is another reason the Jayhawks look tournament-ready. The 7-footer entered Monday second in the Big 12 in blocks per game with 2.6 and collected six against the undersized Sooners.

If you aren't yet familiar with Embiid or any of the Jayhawks, you might want to learn their names. They look like a team that’s going to be playing for a while come tournament time.