The Day After: Morgantown Madness
The Kansas University basketball team's latest game — a 92-86 loss at West Virginia on Saturday — seems to be a classic example of one that can be looked at completely differently by two very different groups of people.
The pessimists will say that the Jayhawks were awful, embarrassing and deserved to lose because they lacked energy, fire, passion and intelligence.
The optimists will say that the way the Jayhawks closed the game — particularly Andrew Wiggins — is what matters most because the team showed heart and nearly battled all the way back from 25 points down while playing without their best big man.
They're right, too.
So what do you do when you've got two groups of people standing in opposite corners who are both right while saying the opposite thing? Throw the game out and move on to the ones that really matter?
Sounds like as good a plan as any.
It was obvious where the Jayhawks came up short in this one and, frankly, if those same issues continue to plague them, this March probably won't be very memorable.
As ugly as Saturday's loss was at times, the whole experience has to be taken with a grain of salt. The Jayhawks were missing one of their top players (Joel Embiid) and were facing a desperate team that needed a signature victory to have even a prayer of making the tournament. Throw in the fact that it was the regular season finale on the road and Senior Night at WVU, and you're looking at a pretty basic recipe for an upset. That said, it has to be considered frustrating — if not something more severe — that, even with those things stacked against them, the Jayhawks did not come out with a more inspired effort until things got really bleak. KU's pride and heart showed up when it counted and the Jayhawks salvaged a day that, for a while, looked destined to become a total embarrassment and may actually be able to take something positive out of the way they closed the game. The loss likely ended KU's hopes of landing a 1 seed, but they should still be in good shape for a 2, which might wind up being the better road anyway. If Embiid can return and Wiggins can play with the kind of drive and aggression he showed against the Mountaineers, KU is very much still alive.
Three reasons to smile:
1 – I'm sure the votes were already in, given the fact that the winner of the Big 12's player of the year award will be announced a little later today, but those who voted for someone other than Andrew Wiggins probably were wishing they could have their vote back while watching this one. Wiggins was the only KU player who showed up from start to finish and his 41 points, 12 field goals, 15 free throws, 5 steals and 4 blocks all were career-highs. When he's locked in the way he was on Saturday, there's very little that anyone else can do about it. Had he gotten even just one other guy to give KU the same kind of effort from start to finish, the Jayhawks probably would've survived even while playing poorly. Embiid may be KU's most valuable player, but Wiggins is the team's best and he showed Saturday that he can be a guy who can almost single-handedly win a game for you. That's a good thing.
2 – Although Wiggins was the only one who showed up all day, there were a few other guys who deserve some credit for that late second-half comeback that nearly stole KU the victory. Frank Mason picked it up on the defensive end and hit a couple of big shots. Landon Lucas and Jamari Traylor had a couple of good moments, as well. And KU's overall team athleticism really created some havoc in scramble-mode. It might have been enough to make KU coach Bill Self think about employing some more of that into the game plan even when KU's not playing from way behind and desperate to avoid embarrassment.
3 – These are the types of games KU will face in the tournament. Good guards, no pressure on the underdog and a nothing-to-lose mentality can make life tough for any favorite. Given the fact that the Jayhawks are so young and many of these guys are going through that type of thing for the first time, getting a taste of it early might not have been the worst thing in the world. Now they know what it looks like, feels like, sounds like and tastes like. And, most importantly, now they know what can happen if they don't bring it from the jump. You can bet Self will use this as a big-time teaching tool and, as frustrated as I'm sure he was throughout Saturday's game, he'll swallow hard and find a way to use it without shredding his guys' confidence.
Three reasons to sigh:
1 – What could have been a real confidence builder for KU's point guards became an absolute disaster. Naadir Tharpe played poorly and looked overmatched and intimidated and Frank Mason looked sloppy and careless until he final figured out a way to make a positive impact by tightening up his defense during that second-half surge. On a day and in a situation in which KU's leader should have played 30-plus minutes himself, Tharpe played just 16 scoreless minutes and watched Mason and Conner Frankamp take their turns while combining for 33 minutes. Frankamp, though off offensively, played his 15 minutes because he showed he was at least willing to try to defend. And Mason's athleticism and toughness earned his minutes. By now, everyone knows that Tharpe is such a critical part of this team. The good news for KU fans about his line — if you can believe there is one — is that Tharpe's a mentally tough dude, who will not let this define him. Only way he can prove that, though, is by bouncing back with a better effort on Thursday.
2 – KU's offense was bad throughout most of the game, but the Jayhawks defense was equally as poor when the game got away. That was especially true in the first half, when KU played passive defense, with little energy and gave up open jump shots, which WVU just kept knocking down (West Virginia shot 56 percent (9-of-16) from three-point land). When the Mountaineers didn't settle for jumpers, KU's big men gave up ground and allowed things to be way too easy inside for the West Virginia bigs. That's to say nothing of WVU's crazy first-half field goal percentage (63 percent & 53 percent for the game) or the fact that KU — guards and bigs — could not keep anyone in front of them on the perimeter all day.
3 – Body language was a big problem for the Jayhawks on Saturday. I know what you're thinking — how could it not have been? And that's a valid point. But it was about more than just shrugged shoulders or long faces. These guys actually looked uncomfortable in their own skin and nearly every one of them was affected by it. At times, particularly after missed free throws or easy attempts inside, it looked as if the player who misfired wanted to unleash the “gee, that's not fair,” phrase. I'm sure that's just part of their competitiveness and they were disgusted by the way they were playing, but there are plenty of competitors out there who respond to that by playing harder, not pouting. KU eventually got there, but it was too little too late.
One thought for the road:
KU's regular-season ending loss to the Mountaineers:
• Dropped KU to 23-8 on the season and 14-4 in Big 12 play.
• Gave West Virginia (1-3) and head coach Bob Huggins (1-7) their first wins against Kansas.
• Moved the Kansas-West Virginia series to 3-1 in favor of Kansas.
• Changed head coach Bill Self’s record to 3-1 all-time against West Virginia, 323-67 while at Kansas and 530-172 overall.
• Moved Kansas to 2,124-820 all-time. Kentucky still leads with 2,133 all-time wins. KU ranks second and North Carolina (2,113), Duke (2,025) and Syracuse (1,900) round out the all-time top five.
The Jayhawks will get some much-needed time off to watch film, regroup and get ready for the win-or-go-home portion of their schedule. Kansas will open play in the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, Mo., at 2 p.m. Thursday, when they face the winner of the Wednesday match-up between the No. 8 (Oklahoma State) and No. 9 seeds (Texas Tech).