Kansas Jayhawks having a No. 1 seed kind of season, yet are chasing Baylor in Big 12

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Head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts to a foul call against his team during a game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Feb. 1, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. - Ed Zurga/Getty Images North America/TNS

At 11-1, Kansas men’s basketball is off to its best Big 12 start in a decade. The Jayhawks have won 10 straight, played the nation’s strongest schedule, stand No. 3 in the national polls and are pointed toward another top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“Before the season … every coach in America would sell out for that in conference play, I would think,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Yet, KU remains in chase mode.

Baylor is the front runner, in the Big 12 and nationally. The Bears are poised to be ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the fifth straight week after walloping West Virginia on Saturday.

The victory was the Bears’ 22nd straight, matching the Big 12 record set by Kansas in 1996-97. They did it without second leading scorer MaCio Teague, who sat because of a wrist injury. No matter. Baylor, at 12-0, is bidding to become the first Big 12 team to finish 18-0 in league play.

The Bears’ run includes a 12-point victory over KU at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 11, the first win in 18 games for Baylor in Lawrence. Special seasons are built with such triumphs.

The top teams are a combined 20-0 since that game and they’re all but assured to own top three national rankings for their showdown this weekend in Waco.

Both have a game before then with KU playing host to Iowa State on Monday and Baylor visiting Oklahoma on Tuesday. Clear those hurdles and college basketball’s game of the year is set for 11 a.m. Saturday with Kansas, which had its 14-year conference championship streak broken last year, in the rare position of pursing first place.

“We want to win the league bad,” Self said after Saturday’s home victory over Oklahoma. “Baylor wants to win the league bad. It won’t be a failure if we don’t, because obviously there are other things to play for.”

The aforementioned NCAA Tournament position, for instance. Baylor was the overall top seed when the Division I men’s basketball committee unveiled its top 16 teams on Feb. 8. KU, Gonzaga and San Diego State were the other top seeds. Those teams’ resumes seem to grow stronger by the week.

But Kansas plays for championships. The Jayhawks have won or shared the Big 12 title 18 times in 23 seasons. They can match their best league record in the current conference configuration (16-2) and finish second.

“I’m not looking at it like we haven’t done as well as our record because we’re in second place,” Self said. “I’m looking at it like we’ve been pretty good. We just got beat by a team that was better than us on that day. We get a chance to get them back. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

This is a two-team race. Six league games remain for all teams and Kansas holds a four-game lead on third-place Texas Tech.

The gap widened on Saturday when Baylor and KU won and the next three teams — Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma — lost. By the end of the week it’s possible that all teams besides the Bears and Kansas will be out of the title picture.

In that way it’s been an unusual year in the Big 12. Once in the last seven years has a third-place team finished more than three games behind first.

Also looming as a difference for the Big 12 this year: Fewer than a majority in the conference reaching the NCAA Tournament. Most projections have the top five teams getting in. Texas likely owns the sixth best resume and the Longhorns just lost to Iowa State by 29.

For six straight years, at least six Big 12 teams have made the NCAA field. That steak is threatened.

Nothing seems stranger than in a year where Kansas looks like a No. 1 seed and could get one-upped in the conference. Baylor has been that good, and by the end of this week the Bears could be that much closer to one of the greatest seasons in Big 12 history.

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)