Hookin' Up With the 'Horns

Bill Self (AP Photo/Joe Don Buckner)

Kansas clinched a tie for its fifth straight Big 12 Championship Wednesday night after Missouri beat Oklahoma in Columbia. However, there was no celebration in the Jayhawk locker room with KU losing at Texas Tech, 84-65.

Three days later, Kansas can break out the party hats and celebrate an outright Big 12 title with a victory over Texas in the home finale at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Saturday showdown tips off at 3 p.m. (CST) on CBS.

"It will be really cool to have a chance to clinch it at home with (tied for) the best league record we've had since we've been here," KU coach Bill Self said. "Nobody likes to share (the conference title). We're selfish, and everybody else is, too."

KU (24-6, 13-2 Big 12) will aim to rebound on Senior Day after its humbling loss to Texas Tech. This will be the final home game for senior walk-ons Matt Kleinmann and Brennan Bechard. Texas (20-9, 9-6), meanwhile, hopes to continue its solid play after winning three of its last four games. The Longhorns are coming off a 73-57 victory at home over Baylor on Monday.

Texas, which is tied for fourth place in the Big 12 with Oklahoma State, needs a win to clinch the No. 4 seed in the Big 12 Tournament Championship next week. The Longhorns average 73 points while allowing 65.1 ppg. Texas leads the league in rebounding with 39.4 boards per game.

UT is led by 5-11 sharp-shooting senior guard A.J. Abrams and 6-7 junior swingman Damion James. Abrams paces Texas with 16.9 points and a Big 12-leading 3.0 three-point field goals made per game. He is also second on the squad with 34 steals.

James averages 15.6 points and a team-high 9.5 rebounds per game (No. 3 in Big 12). Sophomore forward Gary Johnson is next in scoring (11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), followed by 6-10, 298-pound junior center Dexter Pittman (9.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, team-leading 62.1 percent field goal shooting and tied for team high with James with 24 blocks), junior guard Justin Mason (6.6 ppg and team-best 127 assists and 37 steals), senior forward/center Connor Atchley (5.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg), freshman guard Varez Ward (3.5 ppg) and sophomore guard Dogus Balbay (3.1 ppg, 3.1 apg).

KU sophomore guard Brady Morningstar and his teammates must defend Abrams better than they did Texas Tech's Jake Voskuil, who exploded for a career-high 35 points Wednesday night. Abrams is the league's career leader in three-pointers (372) and seventh on the Big 12 all-time scoring list with 1,880 career points.

"No disrespect to Voskuil, but I think he's (Abrams) harder (to guard) because he's faster," Self said. "A.J. does such a great job of creating separation because of his speed. They're both hard to guard, especially if you let a guy get comfortable like we did Voskuil the other night. But I think A.J. is a more difficult guard because of his raw speed, and he has a very quick release."

Morningstar seems primed for the challenge.

"I hope I get to guard him," he said. "I can try to redeem myself a little bit and get back to how I used to play."

Self knows Texas will pose a severe challenge and added that James "is as good an athlete we have in our league, probably."

"I think the biggest thing is the numbers of big bodies and the foul problems that they don't have to deal with because they have big bodies," Self said. "Even though our rebound numbers are pretty good over the course of the year, I think Texas is a great rebounding team. You have to get to Abrams obviously, and Atchley and James have proven they can make perimeter shots. That makes them very difficult to guard. I think they are really sound defensively. They're a better defensive team than what they've had. ... They're very athletic. Balbay is an athlete, and Mason is an athlete. Varez Ward is coming on; he's an athlete. A.J. is quick as a cat."

The Jayhawks and Longhorns have a history of playing some memorable games. KU and UT met in each of the last three Phillips Big 12 Championship title games with the Jayhawks winning each time. Kansas is 8-0 versus Texas in Lawrence,  including 6-0 in Allen Fieldhouse. KU lost at Texas last season, 72-69, on Feb. 11, but bounced back and won a thrilling game (84-74) in the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City a month later.

Self expects another exciting clash on Saturday.

"I think when there's a lot at stake, teams turn it up," Self said about the great games between the teams. "I think Texas still has a lot to play for. They're in the (NCAA) tournament, without question, but they're playing for a good seed. We've had some remarkable games with Texas over the years, and I'm sure this one will play out to be another great game. You have two good teams playing each other when the stakes count."

Indeed, they do. The Jayhawks want to send their two seniors out in style and clinch an outright Big 12 title. Kleinmann, who will start the game (along with Bechard), is ready to roll.

"It would be something special," Kleinmann said about winning the league championship outright. "It would be a chance to talk to those guys (last year's national championship team) and be, ‘Hey, you guys were good, but we won one more without you guys," Kleinmann added with a laugh.

"There's something about winning a conference outright that would just be an amazing feeling to know that you're the only one that's having that number up there in the banners. ... It gives it extra meaning."

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