A major showdown in the Big 12 pits Houston against Kansas; will the Cougars get an immense victory or do the Jayhawks hold serve against their new conference rivals at home?
TV schedule: Saturday, February 3, 4:00 pm ET. ESPN
Arena: Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas
All things considered, year one in the Big 12 for Houston (19-2) is going about as well as humanly possible. The Cougars have been a fantastic program in recent years, though this season posed new challenges with both conference and roster changes. Houston opened the season 14-0 and have now won five straight games in Big 12 play, including recent road games at BYU and Texas.
A big part of that equation has been LJ Cryer (15.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg), the Baylor transfer who continues to be a Big 12 standout now with the Cougars. Joining him in this elite backcourt is Jamal Shead (12.3 ppg, 5.8 apg), who’s fresh off a 25-point performance in Monday’s overtime win over the Longhorns. Sophomore guard Emanuel Sharp (12.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is also emerging into a playmaker while J’Wan Roberts (8.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg) anchors the frontcourt.
Houston is currently #4 in the AP Top 25 but sit a remarkable 1st in the KenPom rankings. The Cougars boast the nation’s best defense, allowing fewer points than any other team while also sitting in fantastic shape according to all of the metrics. They dropped a couple of tough road games earlier in January but have looked up to the task in their new league while showing no signs of slowing down.
Across the court, Kansas (17-4) remains a program in fantastic shape, though they sit in an unusual position in this new Big 12. The Jayhawks are 5-3 in league play, with three road losses, including bizarre outings against UCF and West Virginia. Frankly, the Jayhawks have barely scratched the surface and have tough games ahead, though they boast a roster jam-packed with talent.
The big name from the offseason was Hunter Dickinson (18.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg), the former All-American at Michigan who’s slid into a major role as Kansas’s center. Perhaps just as important is Kevin McCullar Jr. (19.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.7 apg), the former Texas Tech guard who’s carved out a major role with the Jayhawks these last few seasons. Among other players to watch include KJ Adams Jr. (12.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), a forward who scored 16 earlier this week against Oklahoma State, and Dajuan Harris Jr. (7.4 ppg, 6.9 apg), one of the nation’s most talented point guards.
Those conference losses sank Kansas to #8 in the most recent AP Top 25 polls, though they’re only 15th in KenPom right now. Neither their offense nor defense ranks Top 20 in those efficiency ratings and the Jayhawks have a lower margin of error than in recent seasons. Despite all this talent, this Kansas squad is not infallible, but has still proven their potential time and time again.
There is a major advantage to playing at home during conference play; neither of these teams have lost at home this season. However, the Jayhawks struggled to pull out wins against TCU and Cincinnati during January and face a much bigger challenge this time around. The Jayhawks are playing great offensive basketball in recent weeks but haven’t quite seen a defense like Houston’s. They’ll have an advantage if Dickinson has a great game in the paint.
With how the Cougars are playing in recent weeks, can we actually expect them to get a win in their first trip to Lawrence as Big 12 rivals? On a neutral-site, we’d definitely favor Houston with how both teams have played in recent weeks, especially with the talent emerging in the Cougars’ backcourt. Expect a strong back and forth battle that could go either way, though we’re leaning towards Dickinson and McCullar solving this defense enough to get the job done.
Prediction: Kansas 65, Houston 62