Cowboys Got Next

Cowboys Got Next

Kansas basketball is riding high these days, winning a nation-best 18 straight games (tied for second-longest winning streak in the Bill Self era), tied for fourth-longest home-court winning streak in school history with 33 games, leading the country in field goal percentage defense (.350) and ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches' poll.

Self, whose Jayhawks are 19-1 (7-0 in Big 12) and welcome Oklahoma State (14-5, 4-3) into Allen Fieldhouse for a 3 p.m. (CT) showdown on Saturday, admits he's spoken to the team about its new No. 1 ranking.

"We talked about (it) the other day," Self said. "You don't protect it, good gosh, try to go take it."

After beating West Virginia, 61-56, on Monday in Morgantown, KU will try to "go take it" against an impressive Cowboys' team, which has overcome double-digit deficits to win two straight at home over Iowa State (78-76) and West Virginia (80-76) after losing three out of five games to start Big 12 play — all road defeats versus Baylor, Oklahoma, and Kansas State. OSU's two other losses this season came against Gonzaga at home on Dec. 31 and at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1.

Despite its five losses, OSU is a potent, talented team which has four players averaging in double figures. Six-foot-three junior guard Markel Brown leads the team with 15.9 points per game, followed by 6-4 freshman guard Marcus Smart (14.0 ppg), 5-11 freshman guard Phil Forte (13.0 ppg, No. 2 in Big 12 with 2.6 three-point field goals made per game) and 6-7 sophomore swingman Le'Bryan Nash (12.0 ppg).

The Cowboys are averaging 69.9 points per game while allowing 63.7. They're shooting 44.0 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from three-point range, and 73.4 percent at the free throw line, while outrebounding foes 35.3 to 31.3 boards per game.

Self is quite concerned over defending Oklahoma State's weapons.

"I picked them second in the league (in preseason Big 12 poll) and from a talent standpoint, they may have as good of roster as there is in our league," Self said. "They are the most athletic team in our league. That will be the thing about it; that we have to guard their athletic ability and they're skilled players because they can score in a lot of different ways. They post their guards; they do some things differently than a lot of people do."

Self said Smart and Nash will "both play" in the NBA, and Brown, "could, too. He's good. Markel Brown is arguably — we've got a guy who's pretty athletic (Ben McLemore), but arguably, Markel Brown is the best athlete in our league. He's a really good athlete.'

Self has also been wowed by Smart, who leads the team in assists (26) and steals (22, No. 1 in Big 12 at 2.8 per game) while shooting 49.3 percent from the field.

"I thought Marcus Smart could be the national freshman of the year back when he was in high school and he still can," Self said of the talented guard who hit the game-winner with 3.1 seconds left against Iowa State on Wednesday while finishing with 21 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four steals.

"He's terrific, he's got size, but the thing about him that I like so much — and I think everybody likes so much — is that he impacts a program from a personality standpoint as much as anybody can in America. He's a take-charge guy, he's a winner."

KU's certainly a winner which has been beating teams with defense this season. With senior center Jeff Withey and senior guard Travis Releford, KU boasts two of the best defensive players in the country. Self likes the Jayhawks' ‘D' (the .350 field goal percentage defense is currently tops in the Self era), but isn't going to say this squad is his best defensive team at KU.

"Our stats are great, but that '08 (national championship) team; people can say what they want to, that '08 team was so much better defensively than offensively is a joke," Self said. "They could guard. They didn't help the helper, they helped the helper's helper. They were really good and we're not at that point yet. That team had seven or eight guys that were aggressive at all times. We had one guy that was an unbelievable stealer of the ball (Mario Chalmers) and Brandon (Rush) was as good of lockdown defender as we've ever had. That team had a lot of pieces. ...I hope we can get there, but we'll have to really improve in some areas to get close to that."

KU's next chance to improve both defensively — and offensively (Kansas has a combined 30 turnovers in its last two games while averaging just 67.0 points and shooting only 44.8 percent in Big 12 play) — comes Saturday against a rising OSU team. While the Cowboys aren't ranked, Self believes they have the potential to be one of the great teams by the end of the season.

"They're going to continue to get better," Self said.

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