Status quo or changing of guard? KU-West Virginia could offer early hint

Entering this week’s games, there have been 260 weekly polls since the 2004-05 basketball season. Kansas wasn’t the highest-ranked Big 12 team in 97 of them.

So, for the previous 13 1/2 years, people who cast an Associated Press top 25 ballot from the preseason poll in November until the final ranking after the conference tournaments believed there was a better team in the league than the Jayhawks.

Who’s to argue the perception? Kansas has lost games, played poorly, and in some years not owned the best NCAA Tournament seed among Big 12 programs.

But the one thing the Jayhawks haven’t done since that season is lose a Big 12 championship, 13 and counting.

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The quest for No. 14 reaches a high-profile test on Monday, when Kansas visits West Virginia. These are the teams picked to finish first and second — KU coach Bill Self, who couldn’t vote for his own team, picked the Mountaineers in his preseason poll — and teams that finished first and second in league play over the past two seasons.

Based on early returns, the Mountaineers have taken a step forward, climbing as high as second in the polls and amassing a 15-game winning streak before Saturday’s loss at Texas Tech.

With a combination of experience and talent, Bob Huggins appears to have his best Big 12 team. We’d be talking about guard Jevon Carter as the early favorite for Big 12 player of the year if Oklahoma freshman Trae Young wasn’t the early leader for national player of the year, although the first round went to Carter, who held Young to an 8-for-22 shooting game in the Mountaineers’ victory over the Sooners on Jan. 6.

This is a tough and smart West Virginia team that pressures its opponents like no other. Because of the short turnaround time, Kansas spent time in the middle of last week working on inbounds plays against Mountaineers pressure.

And even though Kansas, which starts four guards, would seem well-equipped to handle the relentless West Virginia defensive attack, Self warned otherwise. After all, Kansas visited Morgantown the last four years with the player who would become the nation’s best by his senior season, point guard Frank Mason.

“Frank handles it better than the (current) four guys combined almost and we’ve had problems,” Self said.

The Jayhawks have lost four straight in Morgantown, the previous two by double digits. Andrew Wiggins scored a freshman school-record 41 and Kansas lost there. No Big 12 team has a longer winning streak on its home floor against Self’s Jayhawks than West Virginia.

If West Virginia is as good as or better than projected, how about the Jayhawks?

They’re coming off a week in which they sweated out home victories over two teams — Iowa State and Kansas State — that aren’t ranked. A week earlier, Texas Tech became the first team to never trail a Self-coached team at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas’ lack of interior depth has been its biggest issue. The debut of Silvio De Sousa on Saturday was a welcome moment, but it could be weeks before he contributes productive minutes. No telling when or if freshman Billy Preston will appear in a game as the examination of his car ownership continues.

Meanwhile, West Virginia junior forward Esa Ahmad returned from a season-long suspension in Saturday’s loss at Texas Tech and scored 18 points.

The Mountaineers would have taken the league lead and perhaps command of the Big 12 with a triumph in Lubbock. As it is, West Virginia stands tied atop the standings with Kansas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma at 4-1.

Weeks remain in a league that’s shaping up as the most competitive in college hoops. Monday marks the 26th game in conference play this season and the ninth between two ranked teams. The winner will make a statement about the status quo or a changing of the guard.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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