Tonight represents a huge matchup in the Big 12 Conference race as the Baylor Bears head into Allen Fieldhouse where the Kansas Jayhawks have held serve consistently on their way to seven consecutive Big 12 Conference titles. This year was expected to be one of the more challenging runs in recent years with the Jayhawks facing a "down" year. Two weeks into the season, Kansas welcomes Baylor in a game that will be huge if Kansas is going continue their streak.
To start the year the Big 12 conference was very unpredictable. In fact you had preseason polls placing the Jayhawks and Texas A&M in a two way tie for first place. Since that time A&M has been fairly underwhelming while Baylor and Missouri have both used strong starts to stake their claim as a contender. While Missouri's loss at Kansas State currently puts them a game behind Kansas, it's Baylor's undefeated start that would appear to present the biggest challenge to Bill Self and the Jayhawks.
A year after falling short of expectations, Baylor has capitalized on the return of future lottery pick Perry Jones III and started the year 17-0, 4-0 in the Big 12. Baylor is long, they are athletic and they look like the real deal based on everything they have put together to date.
Kansas, on the other hand, is a work in progress. The Jayhawks have solid top end talent but the depth has been suspect. The Jayhawks have been tested early in the season, sometimes passing and other times falling short. One thing that is certain is that Bill Self and the Jayhawks have taken steps in the right direction and certainly have a shot in a competitive Big 12 conference.
Monday night's game represents a huge first step if Kansas is going to continue on that path. To date the Jayhawks have taken advantage of a manageable early conference schedule. They knocked off in state rival Kansas State at home and traveled to Oklahoma and Texas Tech before beating a pesky Iowa State team at home. That's not by any stretch the most difficult portion of the Jayhawk season.
When Baylor comes to town Kansas will be facing an opponent on the level of early season opponents Kentucky, Duke and Ohio State, but this time it will be a team that they are competing against for the league title. Win this one at home, and the Jayhawks give themselves an early leg up with Baylor and Missouri playing on Saturday. Lose and Kansas has to go to Baylor in the full round robin and try to pull even later in the season.
Every year presents a new challenge and new challengers. Scott Drew and Baylor have been hovering in that area for a few years now, but they have never really broken through. This year they appear to have the pieces to do so and Kansas needs to defend their home court in order to take a big step forward in the conference race. While it's definitely too early to call anything a must win, the new round robin schedule does make this one feel pretty important and means that one team can make a significant statement with a win.