KU looks to extend winning streak versus top 25 opponents on Big Monday

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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- It's Big Monday at Allen Fieldhouse as the Kansas Jayhawks will play host to the Baylor Bears. KU is now ranked 8th in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Jayhawks are trying for a fifth-straight win over a top-25 ranked team. All of the victories have come in Big 12 play, a conference that leads the country in conference RPI.

The winning streak started in Norman against previously unranked Oklahoma, a team that has moved into the rankings after wins against Iowa State and Baylor along with a close loss in Manhattan against Kansas St. The Jayhawks then successively defeated Kansas St., Iowa St. and Oklahoma St. The Cyclones and Cowboys were both ranked in the top 10 when they were defeated by Kansas.

The tilt against the Bears will be the first Big Monday in Lawrence this season, and the Bears head in licking its wounds despite a designation as the 24th best team in the country. The Bears had clawed all the way as high as seventh in the AP poll before going into hibernation once Big 12 play began.

The Bears were double-digit losers during trips to Iowa St. and Lubbock where it lost to a pedestrian Texas Tech squad. The lone conference win on its ledger came against TCU. Power forward Isaiah Austin nearly shot them to a comeback win last Saturday against Oklahoma. The Sooners played strong final possession defense and kept the Bears from shooting a buzzer beater attempt that could have sent the game to overtime, the final was 66-64.

Scott Drew’s team will have to combat both the Big 12 Player of the Week in Naadir Tharpe and Big 12 Newcomer of the week Joel Embiid. Tharpe has emerged as the clear leader for the Jayhawks. He scored a career-high 23 points against Iowa St. last Monday night and followed up with a 21-point effort against Oklahoma St. on Saturday.

Love him or hate him, Tharpe has stepped up.

“You know, one thing I’ve learned from being here since (I was) a freshman, try not to think about the turnovers,” Tharpe said during a press briefing. “I have the ball in my hands so many times throughout a lot of possessions, I’m gonna turn the ball over, I need to kind of cut it down a little bit. Coach is always talking about trying to make a play and if I’m open, he wants me to shoot the ball.

Coach Bill Self said at times Tharpe’s play can be puzzling, but he was also happy that the point guard answered the call multiple times on Saturday when it looked like the Cowboys were going to make a comeback.

“Sometimes you scratch your head with some of the decisions, but he played extremely well and of course he made big shots. Every time they got real close, he had an answer,” Self said.

Tharpe said it’s imperative that he continues to lead the young Jayhawks.

“I have to be a leader because, like I said, these guys haven’t played in these type of games,” Tharpe said. “These guys don’t really know how much it really means, but they’re starting to understand."

Self said with as well as Tharpe has been playing, he can do more to make the Jayhawks work as a complete team.

“I’m thrilled to death with him, I think he’s doing great,” Self said. “I do think he can do more things to put us in a position to look good as a unit."

Tharpe has made 14 of his last 17 shots over the last two games, including 6-8 from three-point range.

The Bears are expected to play tenacious coming off of its recent swoon, but Self says the Jayhawks will be hungry as well after they nearly blew a double-digit lead against Oklahoma St. The game tips off at 8 p.m. local time and will be broadcast on ESPN.

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