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Jayhawks can take stranglehold on Big 12 with win at Baylor

Baylor forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. dunks during the first period of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — There's a very simple reason every rival coach picked Kansas to win the Big 12 this season: Only one of those coaches has been around when the Jayhawks failed to do it.

That was Baylor's Scott Drew. And it was well over a decade ago.

Now, the pressure is on Drew and his fourth-ranked Bears to beat third-ranked Kansas on Saturday because they are just about the only team left standing in the way of Kansas matching the UCLA teams of the 1960s and '70s by winning its 13th consecutive conference championship.

"Obviously Kansas is in first place," Drew said this week, "and everybody wants to finish there, so when you're playing the team that's in first place, there's a little more excitement involved."

The Jayhawks improved to 23-3 and 11-2 in the league with their dramatic overtime win over No. 9 West Virginia on Monday night, a game in which they rallied from 14 points down with less than three minutes to go to force extra time. The victory was impactful because it came just hours after the second-place Bears (22-4, 9-4) lost on the road to Texas Tech.

That means Kansas can take a three-game lead on its nearest rivals — Baylor and potentially West Virginia and Iowa State — with four games to play with a victory in Waco, Texas.

Or, the Bears can get back to within a game of the Jayhawks by defending the home court.

"It's huge. If Baylor is successful it's anyone's game," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "If we were to play well down there and be fortunate to win, it would look like a pretty significant hill to climb for the others. But it's still a little too early to talk about the league race."

In fact, Self said that won't even be a talking point this week.

"We have our hands full playing a top-five team on the road," he said. "We don't have to make it more confusing by saying, 'This is for the league race.' That will not be motivation for our guys."

A better source of motivation may have been their first matchup in Lawrence.

The Bears leaned on star forward Johnathan Motley to build a six-point halftime lead, and were still knotted 64-all with 2:23 left in raucous Allen Fieldhouse. But after Many Lecomte's fall-away jumper brought Baylor to 70-68 with 51 seconds left, Ish Wainwright missed a 3-pointer badly on the team's next possession, and Kansas added one of two free throws to build a cushion.

The Bears had a chance to get off a potentially tying 3-pointer in the final seconds, but the Jayhawks buckled down on defense and forced a turnover, allowing them to put the game away.

"We'll definitely look at the last game," Drew said. "What worked, what adjustments have to be made on what didn't work. ... We'll do all of that and hopefully be able, like every team, keep getting better, because this time of year you want to be at your best."

Drew pointed out that the teams were remarkably even that night in Lawrence. Their field-goal percentages were nearly equal, rebounds were dead-even and both teams had 15 turnovers. The only real difference came at the foul line, where Kansas attempted 27 and Baylor had just six.

"We have to drive it more," he said. "That's been our emphasis all week."

An emphasis for Kansas might be getting off to a better start.

The Jayhawks' frantic rally against West Virginia was their latest come-from-behind special, following similar nip-and-tuck wins against Texas Tech and Kansas State, and a loss to Iowa State in which they blew a big lead early in a rare loss at the Phog.

"I don't know if it's a good thing that we're getting down, but it's a great thing that we're showing we can fight back in those situations," Kansas center Landen Lucas said. "It's stressful. It's not ideally what we'd want. It'd be nice to get some easy wins, but it's good to have this learning process and show we can come back from double-digit deficits."

As for the stakes at Baylor on Saturday?

"We do understand that this is a game we would like to win, obviously," Lucas said. "With the way the Big 12 is, there are so many good teams and we don't want to open any doors. It's a big game for us. We're going down there with a free mind but keeping it very serious."

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