Kansas coach Bill Self talks to reporters following the Jayhawks' 89-34 victory over Howard on Dec. 29, 2011.
Kansas University’s basketball coaching staff might not throw the game film into a time capsule, but for this team Thursday’s 89-34 victory against Howard University might wind up being noteworthy.
For starters, it was exactly the kind of game for which KU coach Bill Self had been waiting.
The Jayhawks still had mental lapses, turned the ball over a few too many times (13) and benefited more from Howard’s 22 percent shooting than their own stiff defense. But the bench played. A lot. And it marked the first time since KU’s 100-54 runaway victory against Towson in the season opener that Self had such a luxury.
When you’re facing the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Georgetown, UCLA and Ohio State, you tend to go with the guys you trust. During the stretches you’re not playing well against teams like Davidson, South Florida or Long Beach State, it’s hard to trust anybody.
After Thursday, Self may be a little closer to loosening the leash on some of his second-tier guys.
“I thought they did fine,” Self said of primary bench players Naadir Tharpe, Kevin Young and Justin Wesley. “That’s a good game for them to get a lot of minutes.”
Go figure. With Hollywood actress Olivia Wilde sitting two rows behind the KU bench, the guys who spent the most time there during normal games were on the floor nearly half the night.
Young played 18 minutes and finished with seven points, six rebounds, three steals and one standing ovation. At times, it looked as if he thought Howard’s uniforms had the words “Ohio State” written on the front of them.
The 6-foot-8 junior’s highlight play of the night came with about 16 minutes remaining in the second half and KU leading, 50-16. After missing a wide open 12-footer, Young chased down his own rebound, zipped a pass to Elijah Johnson and raced back into rebounding position. He wasn’t done. After hanging in the air near the rim and taking two swipes at a ball that took forever to come down, Young tracked down Johnson’s three-point miss along the baseline and was fouled after gaining possession. As the teams headed to the benches for the media timeout, the Allen Fieldhouse crowd rose to its feet and roared for Young’s effort.
“I think it’s shows a lot about Kevin, that he’s still battling like that in that type of game,” said KU senior Conner Teahan, who teamed with Tyshawn Taylor to lead KU with 13 points apiece. “We have to keep doing the same, just keep fighting no matter what the score is, and just keep taking it to ’em. Obviously, the crowd loves that. Those are big plays that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet.”
Young wasn’t the only member of KU’s unproven bench who impressed. Tharpe recorded five assists and a steal in 17 minutes, and Wesley snagged six points and five rebounds in 14 minutes. All three guys still made mistakes, but those mistakes didn’t lead to a spot next to Self.
“Our schedule has been so hard that we haven’t had a chance to let guys play through mistakes off the bench,” Self said. “I thought Naadir made some really nice passes. Kevin did some good things. Justin didn’t play as much in the teeth of the game, but I thought they all did some good things.”
There was a reason for that. And Young, who appears to be learning a little more each time out, summed it up.
“I feel like we showed a lot more than we had been showing,” he said. “And I think it’s because we came out aggressive. We just stayed after them, and we had a lot of energy.”
Self has said this is a team that has to bring great effort every night to play up to its potential. In a surprisingly electric environment — considering the time of year — and against an opponent they had knocked out in the first five minutes, the Jayhawks showed they get that.
“I think for the most part they understand,” Self said. “For the most part.”
Now, it’s about sustaining it. With Big 12 Conference play set to kick off Wednesday, when KU plays host to Kansas State, only those performing at a high level are going to get big minutes. If Young, Tharpe and Wesley want to be in that conversation, what they showed Thursday against Howard needs to be just the beginning.
“We start league play with our in-state rival, and it’ll be jumping, and the intensity will be ratcheted up a lot,” Self said. “I don’t know if our new guys totally understand that yet.”
The veterans do.
“First off, you still have to learn from these types of games,” an unimpressed Teahan said after Thursday’s victory. “We definitely want to take care of business Saturday (3 p.m., vs. North Dakota) and keep momentum going into Wednesday.”