Tonight marks the start of another Big 12 season for both Kansas and Texas Tech. For both teams, anything short of a Big 12 title will be a disappointment in this unusual season of college basketball.
For Kansas, that has been the case for as long as Bill Self has been coach. 14 straight Big 12 championships speak for themselves, as do the three Final Four appearances in that timeframe.
For Texas Tech, the championship-level expectations have been a recent development. In the 68 years before Chris Beard became coach, Tech was only ranked for 40 weeks in the AP poll. Since then? 48 weeks in just over four seasons. Make no mistake, this team has ambitions to succeed on a national stage, but prior to Beard coming to Lubbock that was not the case. In fact, Tech was really seen as nothing more than a midtier team in the Big 12 until a victory against the Jayhawks.
January 2nd, 2018. The second game of the Big 12 season for both Tech and KU. The Red Raiders were coming off a dominant win over a ranked Baylor squad, while Kansas had squeaked by a talented Texas team. Tech walked into Allen Fieldhouse as significant underdogs that night, but by the end of the game it was clear they were going to be a contender in the 2018 Big 12 title fight. An 85-73 victory put the nation on notice, and with the following win over Kansas State, the Red Raiders went the first 120 minutes of Big 12 play without trailing. That set the scene for the 2018 team to shine on the brightest stage in college basketball, but it was the game later that year that set the precedent for Tech becoming a perrenial Big 12 challenger.
February 24th, 2018. College Gameday was in Lubbock, and the 6th ranked Red Raiders were set to do battle with the 8th ranked Jayhawks, who had the opportunity to clinch a 14th consecutive Big 12 title. Tech was right in the fight all year with them, but had squandered the conference lead after two straight losses. Even worse, they were dealing with a couple major injury issues. Keenan Evans was playing on what we now know was a broken toe, while Zach Smith was just returning from an ankle injury suffered at the start of conference season. Things were made even more complicated only a minute into the game when Justin Gray got knocked out by a Udoka Azubuike screen. That’s three significant contributors and figureheads of the program all being severely limited due to injury. To put it simply- Tech had no business competing with the Jayhawks on that day. But they did. It took multiple moments of Devonte’ Graham magic for KU to clinch the Big 12 title on that day, and the fight that Tech showed was a precursor for the success that would follow under Chris Beard. Evans would never quite be the same after his toe injury, but he still was the leader for a team that made it to the program’s first ever Elite Eight.
Since then, the series has continued to produce notable results. The first meeting in 2019 resulted in a blowout win for the Jayhawks, which put Tech two games back in the conference. Three weeks later? Tech absolutely dominated the matchup, winning 91-62 in the largest loss for a Bill Self-led Kansas team. The win was part of a nine game winning streak for the Red Raiders, who capped that off with a share of the Big 12 title and eventually a trip to the NCAA Title Game.
Last year, the stakes were a bit lower for Tech, but they still nearly played spoiler. The February game in Lawrence came down to a one possession game, but a couple critical mistakes from Jahmi’us Ramsey allowed the Jayhawks to escape with a 78-75 victory. Most recently, Tech nearly won what would turn out to be the last game of the 2019-20 season for both teams, as a back and forth affair ultimately resulted in a 66-62 victory that clinched another Big 12 title for Kansas.
As you have seen, almost every recent meeting between Kansas and Texas Tech has resulted in a meaningful outcome for one team, and most of the games have been extremely close. I am not sure how tonight will play out, but one thing is for sure: whatever happens will significantly shape the Big 12 race this year. Let’s appreciate the fact that Tech has reached that point, and let’s enjoy the battle that will commence tonight.