Kansas coach Bill Self talks to reporters following the Jayhawks' 70-66 victory over Missouri on March 5, 2011.
Columbia, Mo. Looking more than ever like a not-ready-for-prime-time freshman, Kansas University guard Josh Selby couldn’t stop himself from either throwing it to the Missouri bench or dribbling it out of bounds. He tallied three turnovers in seven minutes. The team’s five best players — Marcus and Markieff Morris, Tyrel Reed, Thomas Robinson and Brady Morningstar — combined for 20 turnovers.
For sloppy stretches in Saturday’s first half in Mizzou Arena, Kansas played so wildly it looked as if even the inevitable domination of the interior by the twins and Robinson might not compensate for the way the nation’s second-ranked team surrendered the basketball at such an alarming rate.
Early in the midst of all that craziness, sophomore point guard Elijah Johnson could be seen throwing up into a lined garbage can behind the KU bench. Not even two weeks ago, such a sight might have elicited a response from Kansas-backers of, “Oh.” Now it merits an “Oh, no!”
By not trying to advertise his value with look-at-me plays, Johnson has become that valuable to Kansas that quickly. The same player who until Tyshawn Taylor was suspended Feb. 21 for two games for violating a team rule was known best for his spectacular dunks has established himself as the team’s starting point guard. He’s done that by understanding his offensive role is to keep the ball moving so that the defense slips into catch-up mode and leaves one of Johnson’s teammates with a high-percentage shot. And he’s done it by knowing his defensive assignment calls for stopping the ball and preventing the opposition from getting good shots.
Johnson’s hurling problems proved short-lived, and he returned to the court to help KU end Mizzou’s 17-game home-court winning streak with a 70-66 victory.
“Just had a little phlegm in my throat, and I just got to gagging and couldn’t stop, that’s all,” Johnson explained.
The Missouri pressure defense played a role in KU’s 24 turnovers, eating at the players’ concentration to the extent they made several unforced errors. But it certainly wasn’t the cause of Johnson’s gagging. He did all of that off the court, leaning over a garbage can.
Johnson had a calming influence. He played 26 minutes and didn’t turn it over once. Early returns on the impact of Taylor’s two-game suspension: It made both Johnson and Taylor better.
Taylor has been back two games and has played well in both. He had just one turnover, had three assists and played strong defense before fouling out after 17 minutes of action.
The way Johnson has played in his four starts, Taylor no longer gets minutes by default. He has to earn them. Selby’s regression makes it imperative Taylor and Johnson both produce consistently.
“It was fun,” Johnson said of facing the Tigers’ pressure. “That was my first time in Mizzou actually getting to play. Last year, I got in with about a minute to go.”
Johnson didn’t gripe during a freshman season in which he totaled just 151 minutes of playing time in a 33-3 season and didn’t grouse when limited to singe-digit minutes in the two games leading up to Taylor’s suspension.
Sure, Johnson wanted to play more, but he didn’t go public with any negative language, of the spoken or body variety. Players at all levels who believe they should be playing would do well to follow Johnson’s advice on how to stay tuned in so that when the opportunity arrives they can capitalize on it.
“Honestly, just follow your heart,” he said. “Your mind is going to mess with you sometimes. You’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to think, but you’ve got to follow your heart. You just have to be confident. You can’t give in. You can’t give in. You can’t. You do, you might as well quit. You quit one time, you’ll start quitting everything.”
The Tigers should have quit chucking threes, but their other options weren’t as attractive as KU’s.
Kansas made just two of seven three-pointers, Missouri three of 23. The biggest difference in the teams: The Tigers need to hit from long range to win. Teams that go 29-2 in the regular season and 14-2 in the Big 12 don’t do so without consistency. Teams that score most of their points from the inside aren’t as prone to scoring droughts.
“Definitely that plays a big part in it,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to hit threes. We can go inside. We actually should go inside first every time.”
Johnson’s first bucket came from inside, more precisely from above the rim. Not many team run set plays that result in the power forward tossing a lob for a point guard to throw down the slam, but that’s what Kansas coach Bill Self called for the bucket Johnson threw down on a lob pass from Marcus Morris to make the score 5-0.
“I enjoy it every time,” Johnson said of getting that play call from the bench.
It’s a nice reward for him spending most of his time feeding the most efficient scorers, Marcus and Markieff Morris.
Johnson’s head definitely is in the right place, and he has embraced the leadership duties required of a point guard. For example, when Robinson began dominating in the second half with repeated put-backs, he became a tad too celebratory.
“I had to calm him down at one point,” Johnson said of Robinson. “We kind of got into it on the floor, then I had to calm him down. He was telling me, ‘Let me play. Let me play.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you can’t overstep the boundaries because when you do that, you step on the referees’ toes, and they come back to the whole disrespect thing on the floor.’”
Johnson said at other times he tries to ignite more emotional play from teammates. How?
“I kind of rile people up saying things they aren’t used to hearing to get them to play,” Johnson said.
The big men, particularly Marcus Morris and Robinson, won this one. Yet another late clutch three-point shot from Tyrel Reed didn’t hurt. And Johnson and Taylor helped to win it by not losing it. That’s all this team needs from its point guards.