It's a rare day indeed when a higher-ranked Big 12 basketball team comes into Allen Fieldhouse to take on the mighty Kansas Jayhawks and their electrifying fans. That was the setting Monday night, however, as third-ranked Baylor, unbeaten through 17 games, rolled into Lawrence with a chance to take down another ranked opponent from the Sunflower state on its home court and stake its claim as the new king of the hill in Big 12 basketball.
That may have made for a great story line setting the stage for this much ballyhooed matchup of top-ten teams, but from the opening tip, it became very clear that No. 7 Kansas was not going to have any part of all the talk about this not being a typical Jayhawks' year. And by that we mean playing winning basketball and winning championships.
Behind the dominating one-two, inside-out, knockout punch of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas made an emphatic statement, sending the message that any reports of the Jayhawks' relinquishing their seven-year run as conference champion this season are far too premature. Robinson finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds and Taylor added a game-high 28 points, equaling his career best set just two days earlier against Iowa State.
From the early going, when a lob pass from Taylor to a leaping Robinson for a monster jam brought the house down and got Kansas off to an early lead, the game was never seriously in doubt, although Baylor did storm back to take a five-point lead late in the first half. The Bears held a one-point lead before the Jayhawks scored 17 of the final 19 points in the first half, with 11 of the points coming from the hot hand of Taylor. Baylor was never able to recover from that barrage at the end of the first half, and Kansas kept its foot on the throttle, widening the margin up to 19 points mid-way into the second stanza.
All season long, critics of the Kansas men's basketball team have been cautioning that this is the least-talented team in Bill Self's eight seasons as the Jayhawks' head coach. That may be the case, but when you have a force in the middle like Robinson, who many experts believe is a strong candidate for national player of the year honors, it greatly helps offset some of the key personnel losses from last season's Elite Eight team. In fact, during the game between Kansas and Baylor, the iconic Dick Vitale, who was part of the ESPN broadcast team calling the game, was reported to have sent a tweet saying Robinson was his national player of the year.
The win established Kansas at the top of the fray in the Big 12 standings with a perfect 5-0 record so far. But with two-thirds of the conference schedule still ahead, it's way too early to declare a conference champion, especially in a year in which the new round-robin balanced schedule is sure to take its toll before season's end.
Baylor is a more talented and deeper team than this year's Jayhawk team, but that doesn't seem to matter when Kansas plays in front of the home crowd. Baylor clearly isn't alone in walking out of Allen Fieldhouse in defeat. After all, 85 of the 86 Kansas opponents before the Bears have suffered the same fate, including two top-three teams this season and three ranked in the top ten. The home of the "Phog" always seems to bring out the best in Kansas, especially in the biggest games, and the Big Monday battle between two of the best in the Big 12 this season further proves that point.
There probably wasn't much chance that Baylor was going to catch Kansas by surprise. There was too much at stake in this matchup, even early in the conference campaign. The standing rule of thumb during the college basketball season is, if a team wants to be a serious contender for a conference championship, it must win its home games and win more than you lose on the road. Kansas took care of business in Monday night's first encounter between these two teams, but Baylor will get a chance at redemption when the two teams meet again on the Bears' home court in February.
By holding serve in Lawrence, however, Kansas will not face the same pressure as Baylor, which will find itself in a near must-win scenario if the Bears hope to dethrone the seven-time defending-champion Jayhawks and claim all or a part of their first Big 12 hoops title. In the meantime, Baylor doesn't have much time to hang its head and bemoan the crushing end to its perfect season record. Fifth-ranked Missouri brings its game to Waco on Saturday, and the Tigers, who own the same season resume as the Bears (both are 17-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference), have their eyes on the same championship prize.
The big prize still rests with Kansas, and the Jayhawks' thorough thrashing of Baylor sends fair warning to the rest of the conference that anyone who wants it is going to have to come through Lawrence and take it away.
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