Behind another monster scoring day from junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, the Kansas University men's basketball team picked up its third consecutive victory over a ranked team on Saturday, 80-78 over No. 9 Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse.
As expected, the game featured a wild — and loud — atmosphere and plenty of highlight plays on offense and defense from both teams.
The Jayhawks raced out to a 19-point first-half lead and then hung on for dear life down the stretch, as the Cowboys played more like a team worthy of a Top-10 ranking in the second half.
The victory moved KU to 4-0 in Big 12 play and further strengthened its position as the favorite to win this year's conference title. Other than Kansas State, which sits at 4-1, every other team in the Big 12 already has at least two losses and the Jayhawks handed the Wildcats their lone loss.
Anyway, as KU coach Bill Self said, it's still far too early to be talking about the conference race. Self said leading the Big 12 now is like leading in the second inning in baseball.
With that in mind, let's take one more look back at Saturday's Oklahoma State victory.
Forget the near collapse and forget all of the technical fouls and intensity, in terms of basketball only, this was a huge victory for the Jayhawks. Remember, this was an Oklahoma State team that Kansas lost to at home and needed a wild finish to knock off in Stillwater a season ago. Getting over the mental hump of handling the Cowboys plus getting a bonus dose of confidence from beating a Top 10 team in the process figure to keep the Jayhawks on the path they currently are enjoying.
1 – When things got nasty and tempers on the floor flared up, the Jayhawks stood tall, puffed their chests out and pushed back. It's a pride thing when that kind of scrum ensues and, especially because they were playing in their home building, it's clear that, although young and relatively new to town, these guys have plenty of pride in how they represent Kansas and they were not about to get punked by any Oklahoma State intimidation tactics.
2 – How about the continued steady play of Jamari Traylor. In just 19 minutes against Okie State, Traylor scored nine points by hitting all three of his shot attempts and all three of his free throw attempts. To me, the thing that has made the biggest difference in Traylor's recent emergence is the fact that he simply looks comfortable when he's on the floor. He knows what he's doing, has embraced his role and is never asked to do things he's not capable of doing. When asked about his impact after the game, Traylor said he just simply tries to bring energy, rebounding and defense to the floor every time out. And he knows if he's successful, that will give KU an edge. That kind of knowledge is powerful and can create confidence in a hurry. Traylor is a living, breathing example of that right now.
3 – Self pointed this out after the game but it's worth repeating because it shows just how talented and deep this team is and what a luxury that can be. Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis played three of the worst games of their careers and definitely their worst game collectively and yet KU found a way to win. The trio combined to shoot 6-of-22 from the floor and played an average of less than 25 minutes per man against a Top-10 opponent. While three of KU's top four scorers struggled, Naadir Tharpe, Joel Embiid, Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor more than made up for it, combining to shoot 19 for 22 for 51 of KU's 80 points. It's this sort of depth and offensive flexibility that makes KU so tough to game plan for and defend.
1 – It's been a rough few games for KU forward Perry Ellis, who finished with just six points and four rebounds on 3-of-8 shooting in 18 minutes against the Cowboys. You can see in Perry's body language that something's not quite right and I think one of the biggest issues right now is his inability to finish at the rim. Since Big 12 play began, Ellis has been getting bumped often near the rim and that contact has thrown off his shot and his confidence. Ellis is an even-keel dude so you won't see crazy mood swings or displays of emotion from him no matter what's going on out there. But if you look closely, you can see that the sophomore is playing frustrated right now.
2 – That's three consecutive games with a technical foul for Joel Embiid and, although fans and Jayhawks might not like it that this story will now linger, it has to be talked about and it has to be at least a bit of a concern. Embiid was asked about it after the game and it's very clear that he understands what he needs to do. He just needs to keep his cool and cut out the extra-curricular antics. But knowing that and saying that and then actually doing it in the heat of battle are two different things. Embiid's a nice young man and it's clear that he's not a punk and not trying to establish a reputation as one of the Big 12's bad boys. The easy way to get past this is for him to take the advice of teammate Wayne Selden, who came up to him after the incident that earned Saturday's technical and said just one word: “Stop.”
3 – It's tough to sustain a big lead against a good team, particularly when you throw in a halftime break. But the Jayhawks made getting back into the game way too easy for the Cowboys at the start of the second half. OSU played much better and came out with a looser mentality that served them well, but the Jayhawks failed to match the intensity and emotion and allowed the Cowboys to get up off the mat. KU responded to OSU's surge with a nice run of its own, but there's no question that, after the way the first half unfolded, this should've been a much bigger victory than two points. KU survived and may actually be able to learn a lot from nearly blowing it.
One thought for the road:
The Jayhawks' two-point thriller over Oklahoma State:
• Kept Kansas as the only undefeated team in conference play, making KU 4-0 for the third-straight time and the seventh time in the 11-year Bill Self era.
• Gave KU its third-straight win over a ranked opponent in as many games
• Increased the Jayhawks’ series lead to 108-54 all-time against the Cowboys, including a 19-7 advantage in the Big 12 era.
• Moved Kansas head coach Bill Self to 12-8 all-time against Oklahoma State, 313-63 while at Kansas and 520-168 overall.
• Pushed KU's all-time record to 2,114-816.
• Improves KU’s record to 706-109 all-time in Allen Fieldhouse and 168-9 at home under Self.
The Jayhawks will dive back in with another big-game atmosphere at 8 p.m. Monday, when the Baylor Bears come to town for Big Monday.