Kansas coach Bill Self talks to reporters following the Jayhawks' 72-61 victory over Oklahoma on Jan. 7, 2012.
KU players Thomas Robinson and Travis Releford talk to reporters following the Jayhawks' 72-61 victory over Oklahoma on Jan. 7, 2012.
Norman, Okla. — Not many college basketball teams have four starters who could hang with Kansas University’s four best players in a sprint-relay/high-jump competition.
Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Thomas Robinson all can fly and sky, and all know how to finish at the hoop without drawing an offensive foul. They all enjoy playing the game 94 feet at a time.
The work the four fast men did in transition to open the second half spurred Kansas to a 72-61 victory against Oklahoma in front of 11,268 fans at Noble Center.
Trailing by a point at the half, the senior and three juniors didn’t need their coach to blister them at halftime — coach Bill Self chose not to do that this time — to know what they needed to do to play the game at the speed they prefer. They needed to turn up the defensive heat, use their quick feet and active hands to knock the ball loose to trigger the break.
By the time the first TV timeout arrived and enabled the Sooners to stagger back to their corners, KU had erased any doubt about the outcome of Saturday afternoon’s Big 12 game.
During the first 4:13 of the second half, Robinson, Releford and Johnson each picked up a steal, OU turned it over four times, and KU outscored the hosts, 11-2. KU made five of six field goals, the only miss on a Johnson three-pointer. All five buckets came on drives to the hoop. Robinson had the most memorable performance of the span, which started with him swatting a dribble to himself, ended with him freeing himself with a behind-the-back dribble.
Oklahoma came out of the timeout skittish, its offensive purpose appearing to have shifted from trying to score to trying not to turn it over. The Sooners held onto the ball better, but, harassed by KU’s defenders, couldn’t score, either. Outlet pass, dribble, pass, layup. The onslaught continued.
“I thought 10 or 12 minutes to start the second half was probably the best run we’ve had all year,” Self said.
In the first 11:39 of the half, Kansas had outscored the overmatched Sooners, 29-6, forcing OU into six turnovers and 3-for-14 shooting. Kansas shot 13-for-17 over the same period, not because it has better shooters, but because it got better shots, thanks largely to its defense. Also, in the halfcourt, Taylor and Johnson had an easier time penetrating in the second half, setting up dunks.
All coaches will talk about a team needing to find its identity. When Self says that, he doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what the team’s identity is. He means the players haven’t figured it out yet.
Self recruits quick, fast athletes, teaches them how to play great team defense and lets them enjoy the game by turning the fruits of that defense into fast-break baskets. Based on how well the Jayhawks defended during the decisive stages of the two conference games, the identity crisis is in the past. If it resurfaces, clicking the play button on the first 11:39 of the second half should serve as ample reminder.
This team, more than most of Self’s, will need to embrace that identity aggressively because it can’t bank on searing long-range shooting. After going 4-for-19 on three-pointers (.641 from inside the arc) Saturday, KU came out of the game with a season .346 long-distance accuracy rate.
The more efficiently Kansas can guard and run, the less reliant the Jayhawks become on having to hope they can get hot from beyond the arc. The former is a realistic path to an eighth consecutive Big 12 title, the latter a long-shot approach.