Jayhawks, Longhorns meet with Big 12 title hanging in the balance

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A young Kansas team has won 10 straight conference games.

AUSTIN -- Early in the season, Texas was cruising through the Big 12 schedule while Kansas struggled.

The Longhorns were experienced and the favorite for the conference title. The Jayhawks were young, and consecutive losses to Kansas State and Missouri suggested this wouldn't be their year.

But while the seventh-ranked Longhorns stayed at the top of the league standings, the Jayhawks were steadily gaining ground.

After a 1-2 start in league play, a 10-game winning streak has pulled No. 16 Kansas (20-6, 11-2) into a tie for first place heading into tonight's matchup in which the winner emerges as the favorite for the conference crown.

"They were young and finding their way," Texas coach Rick Barnes said Friday. "They've won 10 in a row and played great."

The Longhorns (23-4, 11-2) have been a bit shaky of late.

An 81-60 loss at unranked Oklahoma State snapped a five-game winning streak. The Longhorns followed that with a 65-64 win at Kansas State, which has only five conference wins.

Instead of talking about whether his team might be positioned for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Barnes was dismissing questions about whether his team has slipped in the home stretch.

"If we're stepping backward, there's a lot of people who would like to do the Texas two-step with us," Barnes said.

While a win for either team doesn't guarantee a conference title, a loss certainly damages hopes of winning one.

Both teams have two games after today. Kansas still must play Colorado at home and K-State on the road. Texas travels to Texas A&M and closes the regular season at home against Oklahoma.

Texas won its only Big 12 title in 1999, Barnes' first season in Austin. Kansas has won five, including a share of the regular-season championship last year.

"I think it is fair to say that [the] winner of this game has a serious leg up on the other team," said Kansas coach Bill Self. "The winner of this game, if you are able to win a home game, is guaranteed at least a piece of it. There is not much margin for error."

A Big 12 title would have seemed unlikely for a Kansas team that starts three freshmen and two sophomores and has only two players averaging more than 10 points a game. Freshman Brandon Rush leads the Jayhawks at 14.2 points per game.

"Age is no factor for them," said Texas senior forward Brad Buckman, the only current Longhorn who played in the Final Four in 2003.

That the Longhorns are talking about a Big 12 title is a welcome change from a year ago, when they were struggling with eight losses in their final 14 games.

"A year ago we were fighting to get into the NCAA tournament," Barnes said.

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