Bill Self tried to temper expectations surrounding fifth-ranked Kansas as the season began, pointing out all the big-name players lost to graduation and the NBA.
He didn't fool his fellow Big 12 coaches. They picked the Jayhawks as co-favorites again.
Now, after rolling through their first seven conference games without a miscue, Kansas is in a familiar position. Missouri's upset loss to Oklahoma State earlier this week created a two-game cushion in the standings heading into the Jayhawks' game Saturday at Iowa State.
It's the start of a brutal stretch that includes a home game against Oklahoma and back-to-back road games against the second-ranked Tigers and No. 6 Baylor.
“Statistically, those are the four teams that are the best in the league,” Self said. “As a matter of fact, I think they are the only four teams in the league with winning records, if I'm not mistaken. Besides us. So yes, without question, this is the toughest part of the season.”
The two-game lead may sound luxurious, but senior guard Tyshawn Taylor remembers what happened to Texas last season.
The Longhorns beat the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in late January, and then took a two-game lead when Kansas lost to rival Kansas State on Feb. 16. But the Longhorns eventually lost three of four to lose the lead, and the Jayhawks ultimately won their seventh straight league title.
“It's always good to have a cushion, especially now,” Taylor said. “It's good to have, but it really doesn't mean much. Those are good teams and them being two games behind us, I'm sure they're going to bounce back. We're not going to be too giddy.”
The fact that Kansas plays four of its next six games on the road doesn't help. The home team is 23-12 in conference play, with the Jayhawks and Tigers perfect. Five teams have yet to win on the road, including Texas Tech, which is winless in the Big 12.
“A two-game lead can be squandered quickly,” senior guard Connor Teahan said. “We still have to go out there and take every game seriously and I think that's what we'll do Saturday.”
The Cyclones gave Kansas all it could handle when the teams met in Lawrence. Behind the superb play of Royce White, Iowa State controlled the tempo of the game well into the second half, when the Jayhawks finally pulled ahead and won 82-73.
“I thought we played a little — 'soft' is not the right word, I'm not saying that, but I didn't think we were as active or as energetic,” Self said this week.
While the Jayhawks (17-3, 7-0) have won 10 straight since a surprising loss to Davidson in Kansas City, the Cyclones (14-6, 4-3) have positioned themselves for an NCAA tournament run. They beat Oklahoma State and Texas Tech after losing to Kansas.
“Trust me, Iowa State should have our full attention after the way they handled us for 25 minutes, or whatever it was, at our place,” Self said. “When you go on the road, it's going to go down to the last few possessions, usually, if you play well. Certainly, I hope we're in that position again Saturday.”
If not, that two-game lead in the Big 12 could be trimmed in half.
“We've done some good things on the road,” Self said, “but I don't think we've had a performance on the road that would guarantee us winning. I think we've got to get better.”