Even playing without Joel Embiid, the rubber match in the season series with Oklahoma State went to Kansas, which knocked off the Cowboys 77-70 in overtime on Thursday at Sprint Center behind 30 points from Andrew Wiggins.
The victory moved KU into today's semifinals against Iowa State, another team eager to take another shot at the Jayhawks and pushed the Jayhawks to 24-8 overall.
While Wiggins was by far the best player in the gym, the Jayhawks got big-time contributions from several other players, including senior starter Tarik Black, who took Embiid's spot in the starting lineup and looked more like the guy who showed up on Senior Night and less like the guy who disappeared at West Virginia.
Freshman guard Wayne Selden also was sensational, scoring nine first-half points — 14 for the game — and playing tough defense on OSU's Marcus Smart throughout.
Whether you look at it from the perspective that games like Thursday's are the kinds of games teams face in the NCAA Tournament or the perspective that the Jayhawks gained some much-needed confidence and momentum playing without Joel Embiid, KU's most recent win against Oklahoma State was huge for the Jayhawks. Andrew Wiggins did exactly what he needs to do the rest of the way for the Jayhawks to have a shot and nearly everyone on the rest of the roster contributed something positive to the result. Beyond the two biggest gains mentioned above, the young Jayhawks also got a nice taste of what high-pressure, intense tournament action feels like, which can only help them in the coming weeks.
1 – You might have known it before, but we definitely know it now: Andrew Wiggins is, without question, not afraid of any moment. For the second game in a row, the freshman forward put the Jayhawks on his back and carried them to victory with an impressive scoring night. But more impressive than the points, the shots or the impact Wiggins had on the KU offense was the fact that time after time the young man took the ball in a crucial moment and attacked without hesitation. Sometimes that put him on the free throw line. Others it resulted in a nasty, step-back swish from the baseline with the game on the line. All were big moments. And Wiggins was at his best in each of them.
2 – It looks like there might be life after Joel Embiid. KU's big man rotation of Tarik Black, Jamari Traylor, Perry Ellis and Landen Lucas did a solid job throughout this one, pouring in 22 points and 30 rebounds while helping the Jayhawks outrebound the Cowboys, 46-30, and finishing with three blocks compared to zero for the entire OSU team. None of these guys can replace Embiid on the floor by himself. And even together it's a challenge because of the vast and versatile skill set Embiid has. But more nights like Thursday — particularly the way they avoided foul trouble — will go a long way toward making life without Embiid easier and maybe even play long enough to get him back this season.
3 – The Jayhawks turned it over 14 times and forced just five Oklahoma State turnovers yet still won. Imagine if the turnover margin had been a little closer to even. KU might have won this one by double digits. There's no question that the Jayhawks could stand to force a few more turnovers, but their defense was solid even though they didn't. OSU shot just 38 percent from the game and often operated away from the basket with the shot clock winding down. As for KU's turnovers, the best part about those was the fact that five of them came from the best player in the game, Andrew Wiggins. Outside of that, no one had more than two, including Naadir Tharpe, who had and off shooting night but dished seven assists against two turnovers. When the guy who leads your team in turnovers shoots 9-of-17 from the floor, 3-of-6 from three-point range, 9-of-10 from the free throw line and adds eight rebounds, three steals, three assists and a block, you tend to get over the five give-aways.
1 – Naadir Tharpe's defense continues to be a concern. It's not that the guy isn't willing to play hard, just that he's struggling to keep guys in front of him. On Thursday, even Phil Forte, known primarily as an outside bomber, was able to put the ball on the floor and drive by Tharpe. It's hard to say exactly what's happening here, but Tharpe needs to take a step back and do whatever he has to do to keep guys in front of him. I know you don't want to give up room for clean looks from jump shooters but closing on them and getting a hand up is better than watching your big guys get in foul trouble behind you or, worse, giving up layups.
2 – Perry Ellis had moments on Thursday when he looked like the Perry Ellis of last year's Big 12 tournament. But in a game where 45 minutes per player was possible, Ellis barely played half of them. Foul trouble was a major reason for Ellis' limited minutes and he still contributed nine points on 4-of-7 shooting and eight rebounds in 28 minutes. Ellis needs to stay on the floor and engaged in the offense if for no other reason than to help take some of the burden off of Wiggins, who can put the team on his back and carry the scoring load but should not have to do it to the tune of 30 plus points every night.
3 – For the third time this season, the Jayhawks gave up a double-digit second-half lead to Oklahoma State. It only cost KU in one of the three games, as they held on for a two-point victory in Lawrence and outscored OSU 10-3 in overtime on Thursday. Sure, part of giving up those kinds of leads has to do with the Cowboys and how they play and how talented they are, but KU also made it way too easy at times, as well. That was particularly true of the stretch when the Jayhawks coughed up it twice in a 30-second span and watched OSU trim an eight-point lead to one in the snap of your fingers. It didn't cost them, but it definitely made things much more difficult and forced the Jayhawks to surrender control, which they had from the 11-minute mark of the first half to midway through the second half.
KU's quarterfinal victory over Oklahoma State on Thursday:
• Improved KU to 24-8 on the season, giving the Jayhawks 24 victories for the eighth-straight season (starting in 2005-06).
• Upped KU’s record to 17-1 in Big 12 Championship first games.
• Advanced Kansas to the tourney semifinals for the 16th time in Big 12 history and 34th time overall.
• Improved KU to 66-24 in league tournament play and 36-8 at the Big 12 Championship.
• Made Kansas 10-7 this season in games away from Allen Fieldhouse (5-6 in true road games, 5-1 on neutral floors).
• Improved the Jayhawks to 1-1 in overtime games this season, making KU 62-55 all-time in overtime games.
• Moved the Kansas-Oklahoma State series to 109-55 in favor of Kansas.
• Pushed the Jayhawks record to 23-4 all-time at Sprint Center, including 2-0 this season and 10 in a row.
• Changed head coach Bill Self’s record to 13-9 all-time against his alma mater, 324-67 while at Kansas and 531-172 overall. Self is also 31-9 in conference tournament play (22-4 at Kansas).
• Moved Kansas to 2,125-820 all-time.
The Jayhawks will face Iowa State in today's Big 12 semifinals at 6 p.m. at Sprint Center. Iowa State knocked off Kansas State, 91-85, in Thursday's opening quarterfinal game.