The Kansas University basketball team survived an opening-round NCAA Tournament scare on Friday afternoon in the form of an 80-69 victory over 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
In all actuality, that final score should probably read a little closer, as this one had the feel of a one- or two-possession game most of the night. That's when KU wasn't digging itself out of a hole that suddenly got very deep thanks to some hot EKU shooting and 13 first-half turnovers by the Jayhawks.
In the end, KU's depth, size and a man named Andrew Wiggins proved to enough to advance to the next round. Freshman guard Conner Frankamp, a man who many people thought would and should red-shirt the season — remember that? — bailed the Jayhawks out with steady point guard play, which set the stage for the Jayhawks' big men to dominate when it counted most.
Here's a quick look back at Friday before we start to look ahead to Sunday, when KU will take on 10th-seeded Stanford with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
Two things were abundantly clear during Friday's 80-69 survival victory over Eastern Kentucky: When the Jayhawks played with great energy, passion and even a hint of desperation, they were damn good. When they got lazy, sluggish and content, they paid for it. The recipe for the rest of this postseason run — however deep it winds up being — sure would seem simple, then, and it might have a lot to more playing time for a couple of KU's less heralded players. Jamari Traylor and Conner Frankamp were sensational in this one. Had either player failed to show up the way he did, the Jayhawks might have gone home. But that's one of the luxuries you have when you're a team with quality depth like Kansas. And, boy did it come up big when Bill Self and company needed it most.
1 – Despite coughing it up 13 times in the first half and looking generally careless with the basketball while digging a nine-point deficit, the Jayhawks tightened things up at halftime and finished with just one turnover in the game's final 25 minutes. EKU coach Jeff Neubauer said after the game that the more teams played EKU this season, the more comfortable they got against their aggressive pressure defense. That certainly was true for KU, albeit in the same game, and, most importantly, should really make the Jayhawks appreciate facing Stanford on Sunday, which does not play the same kind of nasty defense.
2 – Tarik Black did exactly what the Jayhawks needed him to do. Possibly overlooked because of the huge games from Jamari Traylor (17 points, 14 rebounds), Conner Frankamp (10 points, 4 assists) and another big, if not quiet, scoring night from Andrew Wiggins (19), Black's contributions, particularly early, helped KU hang around and really set the tone for KU's dominance up front. Black finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks while shooting 6-of-6 from the floor. Four of his six field goals were no-doubt dunks (KU had 11 of them in all) and his blocks were critical in establishing KU's edge in the paint, where the Jayhawks outrebounded the Colonels 43-19.
3 – For the most part, the game went exactly the way the Colonels would have wanted it to go if they could have scripted it themselves, yet KU still won. EKU opened the game on fire, forced a bunch of careless turnovers by Kansas and built a nine-point lead and had the building behind them. But Kansas was patient and seemed to know — or at least believe — that it's advantage inside would ultimately win out. It takes toughness and pride to play through such a poor start and although there were plenty of times where KU was terrible during this one, they fought through a rough night and still won by double figures. Sloppy or not, that's impressive.
1 – It could go down as a reason to smile (I guess) but it's still really weird to me that KU won this game without making a three-pointer. The Jayhawks were 0-for-7 from three-point land, with Wayne Selden and Frankamp missing twice and Ellis, Wiggins and Tharpe missing their only attempts. The 0-for-7 night snapped a streak of 36 games in which the Jayhawks had made at least one three-pointer. The last time it happened? In the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament against Western Kentucky when KU misfired on all six three-point attempts.
2 – KU's starting backcourt had a pretty off night. Not only did Naadir Tharpe and Wayne Selden combine for just six points on 2 of 8 field goal attempts, but the Jayhawks actually looked like a much better team when these guys were on the bench. Selden salvaged his night with some nice assists and strong drives to the rim late in the second half and Tharpe hit a big jumper in the second half, as well. But both lacked energy, intensity and passion in the first half and KU is going to need both guys to start their next game the way they finished this one if it hopes to advance.
3 – KU missed too many free throws. For the game, the Jayhawks connected on 16 of 24 free-throw tries, good for 67 percent. At this time of year, those free points are absolute must-haves and on Friday four different Jayhawks missed twice from the charity stripe.
KU's hard-fought NCAA Tournament victory on Friday:
• Improved Kansas to 25-9 on the season, giving KU 25 victories for the ninth-straight season.
• Handed KU its 29th NCAA Tournament first-game win in the last 31 years, dating back to 1978.
• Made Kansas 11-8 in games away from Allen Fieldhouse (5-6 in true road games, 6-2 on neutral floors).
· Changed the Kansas-Eastern Kentucky series to 2-0 in favor of Kansas.
· Made the Jayhawks 96-41 all-time in NCAA Tournament games and 8-1 in NCAA Tournament games played in St. Louis.
· Bettered KU’s record to 19-5 as a No. 2 seed and made the Jayhawks 6-0 against No. 15 seeds.
· Upped head coach Bill Self’s record to 325-68 while at Kansas and 532-173 overall. Self is now 36-14 all-time in the NCAA Tournament (26-9 at Kansas).
· Moved Kansas to 2,126-821 all-time.
With their victory today over Eastern Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the second-seeded Jayhawks (25-9) will face No. 10 seed Stanford (22-12) at 11:15 a.m. Sunday.
While we put the final touches on our preparations for St. Louis, where we'll dive even deeper into both sides of the KU-Eastern Kentucky match-up that will kick off this year's NCAA Tournament, I figured another quick-hitter blog would help some of you kill time while you're waiting for Friday to arrive.
With that in mind, here's an A-to-Z guide to KU's postseason run, which focuses on everything from key players and moments to fun facts and what the Jayhawks will have to do to keep playing through the end of the month.
Andrew Wiggins has shown during the past few games that he can carry a team on his back offensively. That's gotta continue.
Bill Self likely will have to win KU a game by himself. Whether that's a particularly strong game plan, an in-game adjustment or an intense halftime speech, this is Self's time to shine.
Crowd support is always a huge advantage for the Jayhawks in March and that trend should continue this year, with the Jayhawks landing in a region that sends them to to the two closest sites to Lawrence should they advance. St. Louis for the second and third rounds, at 287 miles, is by far the closest site to the KU campus, and Memphis for rounds four and five is 41 miles closer to Mt. Oread than Indianapolis, which will host the Midwest regional semis and final.
Defense, with or without freshman center Joel Embiid, has to be better than it's been in the past few games or the Jayhawks may go home early. While Self's 2013-14 squad has not lived up to the incredibly high standard he has for his teams defensively, it has had moments where's it's been pretty darn good. The challenge now is to take those halves or 6-10-minute stretches and make them the rule not the exception.
Elite company. KU's 43 NCAA Tournament appearances rank fourth nationally behind only Kentucky (52), North Carolina (45) and UCLA (44). Kansas sports an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 95-41. The Jayhawks’ 95 wins are tied for fourth with UCLA and trail Kentucky (111), North Carolina (109) and Duke (99). Friday's game will be the 137th NCAA Tournament game in KU history. The Jayhawks’ 136 games in the event rank fourth all-time in NCAA history behind Kentucky (157), North Carolina (151) and UCLA (141).
Free throw shooting could be huge for the Jayhawks this postseason, particularly Andrew Wiggins. The KU freshman playing in his first and last NCAA Tournament is so tough off the dribble that he can pretty much get to the free-throw line whenever he wants. In his past four games, Wiggins is averaging 10 trips to the charity stripe per game, including 10 each in the Big 12 tourney and 19 in the regular season finale at West Virginia. More of that means more good news for Kansas and takes some of the pressure off of the half-court offense.
Greene, as in Brannen, played significant minutes in both of the Jayhawks' Big 12 tournament games and he delivered plenty of good moments and bad. When comfortable, he's a capable offensive weapon and his defense is not yet quite as natural. But if the Jayhawks choose to go small from time to time, he'll be a factor and his ability to play loose and let it fly could help the Jayhawks through scoring droughts or foul trouble.
Home away from home? Although they have never played at the Scottrade Center, this weekend's games will mark the fifth time KU has played NCAA Tournament games in St. Louis and the Jayhawks are 7-1 in four previous trips. Their most recent appearance came in the 2012 Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, where they knocked off NC State and North Carolina en route to the Final Four and national runner-up finish.
In the polls: Kansas is ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll released March 17. The Jayhawks were in the AP top 10 in each of the first five polls of 2013-14 and 14 times total. KU also is No. 10 in the March 17 USA Today Coaches’ poll. In the Bill Self era, this is the 170th week Kansas has been ranked in the AP top 25, which includes 121 times in the Top 10. KU has been ranked in each of the last 104 polls dating back to the 2008-09 season. In the coaches’ poll, Kansas has been ranked 197 times, including 145 in the top 10 in the Self era. KU has been listed in each of the last 108 coaches’ polls.
Jamari Traylor's rise. With Embiid sidelined, Traylor has received an opportunity to play more and make more of an impact. The sophomore big man has responded nicely, playing a career-best 27 minutes against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 quarterfinals and tying a career-best with nine rebounds in that same game. Traylor also had nine boards against Florida earlier this season in Gainesville, Fla.
Kurtis' reunion. It's been a while, but 10-year KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend was an assistant coach at Eastern Kentucky for the 1997-98 season. The EKU position was his second assistant coaching stint in the college ranks. He also coached at California from 1994-97. From EKU he went on to be an assistant at Michigan (1999-2001), USC (2002-03) and Miami (Fla.) (2003-04) before coming to Kansas.
Loaded schedule should have the Jayhawks ready for the postseason. It's no secret that KU played the nation's toughest schedule, but let's take it one step farther. During the 2013-14 season, the Jayhawks played 20 games against 12 teams who earned NCAA Tournament bids. KU was 12-8 this season against that competition — Baylor (2-0), Colorado (0-1), Duke (1-0), Florida (0-1), Iowa State (2-1), Kansas State (1-1), New Mexico (1-0), Oklahoma (2-0), Oklahoma State (2-1), San Diego State (0-1), Texas (1-1) and Villanova (0-1) — and the average seed of those 12 foes is 5.3.
Match-ups could definitely favor the Jayhawks the deeper they go in this one, especially if Embiid can play at some point. As was the case in the 2013 tournament with Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks, with Embiid and Wiggins, would be able to put two players on the floor that no other team has. There are other top-tier wings and other solid big men, but no one else has the combination of Embiid and Wiggins.
Nine-point-one points per game. That's how many the Jayhawks outscored opponents by during its first 33 games this season, 2,627 for Kansas to 2,325 for its opponents. KU's scoring margin ranked second in the Big 12 Conference, one of seven offensive categories that the Jayhawks ranked in the Top 4 in the Big 12 this season.
Open practice set for 2:15-2:55 p.m. on Thursday, March 20 at the Scottrade Center. You won't get an inside look at Self's game plan and probably won't hear too much yelling or screaming, but if you happen to be in St. Louis for the tournament, you will get the chance to see your team in a light practice designed to entertain the fans. The event is usually capped off by a brief dunk contest, but don't expect Andrew Wiggins or Tarik Black to be involved. Senior Justin Wesley most likely will be the star of that show.
Point guard play. More than any other factor — even more than whether Joel Embiid returns or not — KU's point guard play will determine how far the Jayhawks advance this postseason. If Naadir Tharpe finds his shot, limits his turnovers and leads the team, KU has a great shot to play deep into the bracket. If he struggles, so might Kansas.
Quotable: Bill Self on landing in St. Louis with fellow Sunflower State schools Wichita State (1 seed Midwest) and Kansas State (9 seed Midwest): “That will be one of the hottest tickets ever for the first two rounds because K-State, Kentucky, and Wichita State and us, I mean — it's going to be hard to get tickets. Our fans need to be creative in figuring out a way.”
Rematches a real possibility. Should they advance, the Jayhawks could face teams they already have played this season in four of the six rounds. The only two rounds where it's not possible? The opening round, where they'll face Eastern Kentucky and the Sweet 16, where they would play either Syracuse (3), Western Michigan (14), Ohio State (6) or Dayton (11).
Seeds matter. KU's in a pretty good spot and got a pretty good draw in this year's bracket. But it's important to remember that No. 2 seeds have been vulnerable during the past few decades. Seven 15 seeds have pulled the first-round upset — Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Georgetown in 2013 and Norfolk State beat Missouri and Lehigh beat Duke on the same day in 2012. In fact, only once in the last 15 years have all four two seeds reached the Sweet 16. What's more, the tourney winner has been a top four seed every year since 1989, with the national champion being a No. 1 seed in 16 of the past 23 tournaments.
Ten the magic number. According to Men's Health Magazine, the average total of the Final Four seeds since 1985 is 10.8. So when you're finalizing your bracket, be mindful of that fact and if you believe in the factoid and you're picking No. 2 seed Kansas, make sure the other three seeds in your Final Four add up to eight or nine.
Under-the-radar guards Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp could play crucial roles for this team in the next couple of weeks given how important good guard play is in the NCAA Tournament. Frankamp is one of the best shooters on the team and he could get hot on any given night. Mason has played big roles at times throughout the season and his toughness, speed with the ball and ability to knife through the paint could come in handy if KU's shots aren't falling.
Victories happen when KU reaches 80. The Jayhawks have topped the 80-point mark in 8 of their last 11 games. For the season, 18 of KU's 24 victories came when Kansas scored 80 or more. Given the inconsistency of their defense, the Jayhawks' best bet for a deep run might be trying to outscore their opponents.
Within striking distance. KU freshman Andrew Wiggins is 16 points away from breaking Ben McLemore's record for most points scored by a KU freshman in a single season. Wiggins' 574 points currently rank second, behind McLemore's total of 589 from last season, which eclipsed the 28-year-old record owned by Danny Manning (496). Wiggins’ 17.4 points per game is ahead of McLemore’s KU freshman-record average of 15.9 ppg and Wiggins already owns the KU freshman record for free throw attempts (220) and free throws made (169).
X-rays of Joel Embiid's back injury will be as talked about as any ailment in the past decade. Good news on the scan equals great news for KU's chances.
Youth a problem? Six players in KU's regular rotation are true freshman, meaning each tournament game will be a first for Wiggins, Embiid, Selden, Mason, Frankamp and Greene. All six guys have settled into their roles on this team, but there's no question that even the most experienced seniors have been rattled by the pressure of the postseason from time to time. Will these young guns remain poised or will the stage and stakes get to them?
Zone defenses — 1-3-1, 2-3, triangle-and-2, whatever — could be part of KU's postseason run if the Jayhawks' man-to-man defense doesn't get the job done. It's not likely that you'll see a total overhaul, but jumping into a zone for a few possessions here and there along the way could help Kansas and keep opponents off rhythm. Self has proven in the past that he's not afraid to do things like this when the it's win-or-go-home time, so thinking he might throw it out there is not completely crazy.
Now that the bracket is set and the Kansas University basketball team knows its path, it's time to look a little closer at what the second-seeded Jayhawks will have to do to advance in this year's NCAA Tournament.
The following is a list of five things to consider as Kansas attempts to find the right recipe for a deep postseason run:
• Bill Self alluded to this on Sunday evening in his press conference after the bracket come out, but it's important that the Jayhawks focus on this year's run with the cliché one-game-at-a-time mentality. Although KU got tossed into a tough regional with top-tier squads Syracuse and Florida and a host of solid mid-range seeds, things definitely could be worse. It absolutely does no good to worry about facing No. 1 overall seed Florida today because KU is still a few games from even getting that chance and, if the match-up does happen, it'll mean the Jayhawks reached the Elite 8, which would likely be viewed as very good news. The one-game-at-a-time thing is particularly important for the young guys on this roster, who have never been here before and could get overwhelmed by all that's at stake. Taking the focused approach and emphasizing scouting report, defensive assignments, offensive identity and all the little things like those will give the Jayhawks their best shot at advancing.
• Tarik Black has to play big for the Jayhawks early on. In its opening round game against Eastern Kentucky, Kansas will have a big-time size advantage and should be able to pound the ball into Black, Perry Ellis and even Jamari Traylor. In a potential Round of 32 meeting with New Mexico, the Jayhawks will need Black to deliver on both ends of the floor against the Lobos' quality big men. What will it take for him to do that? The most crucial thing is for him to stay out of foul trouble. In the Jayhawks' Dec. 14 meeting with UNM, Black played just two minutes, recording one foul and two turnovers during that short time. He's a different, more confident player now, and, with this being his final act as a college basketball player, it seems like a safe bet to guess that Black will be ready to bring it for the Jayhawks during the next couple of weeks. He doesn't have to be as good as he was against Texas Tech on Senior Night at home, but he can't be as bad as he was at West Virginia in the regular season finale either. Something like he gave in the Big 12 tourney quarterfinals against Oklahoma State would probably be enough to get KU to the Sweet 16.
• KU can't worry about the return of Joel Embiid. If the big man can come back and play at some point this postseason — be it in surprise form next Sunday or the more expected target date of the Sweet 16 — that will be gravy for the Jayhawks. But even if he does return at some point, don't expect him to be a dominant force right out of the gate. Let's say the Jayhawks make it and Embiid plays in the Sweet 16. That game will take place on March 27, which will mark 26 days since Embiid last played in a game. I know he's been working out in the pool and doing some things to keep himself in decent shape, but there's no substitute for game shape and almost a month off will create problems for even the most finely tuned athletes. Embiid averaged just 23 minutes per game this season in the first place, and if he is able to return at some point during the Jayhawks' run, expect him to contribute fewer minutes than that initially.
• Don't be surprised if we see the Jayhawks turn to a smaller, quicker lineup for significant portions of the NCAA Tournament. With Embiid out, the Jayhawks still have some legit big men inside who can make up for his absence. But this team is and always has been at its best when it has been running and gunning and getting out in transition. Because of that, I think it's very possible that we'll see a lot of small lineups in the NCAA Tournament, particularly in the first game against Eastern Kentucky, which is a perimeter-oriented team. This could mean a couple of different things, but one of the lineups we could see playing some serious minutes together might include Naadir Tharpe, Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Andrew Wiggins and Perry Ellis. That's not to say Tarik Black, Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene won't be involved. Clearly they will be. But if KU has to go small to match up or considers throwing in a zone defense from time to time, Wiggins is definitely capable of playing up a position because of his length and athleticism.
• Three-point shooting could be the most important factor in determining whether the Jayhawks survive St. Louis or not. All three of KU's potential foes in the second and third rounds (Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico and Stanford) made more three-pointers than the Jayhawks this season and two of the three (EKU and UNM) made a substantial amount more than their opponents this season. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, made 23 fewer three-pointers than their opponents this season. Obviously, the match-ups and the strengths and weaknesses that go along with them, will determine how important KU's three-point shooting will be. For example, in the opening game against EKU, the Jayhawks' size advantage might keep them from relying too much on the three-point shot. Regardless of KU's offensive advantages, though, KU's three-point defense will be a factor. And if the Jayhawks give up the kinds of open looks they gave to Iowa State and West Virginia, things could get dangerous in a hurry if the KU opponents are knocking them down. Expect Andrew Wiggins to be called on to lock down each foe's top three-point threat, thus increasing the odds of KU advancing.
Now that we've outlined a few of the keys for the first weekend of this year's tournament, here's a quick look at how online gambling sight Bovada.lv sees the odds of winning the entire thing and each region:
2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship - Odds to Win
Florida #1 11/2
Michigan State #4 7/1
Louisville #4 13/2
Arizona #1 9/1
Virginia #1 10/1
Wichita State #1 10/1
Kansas #2 10/1
Duke #3 12/1
Wisconsin #2 20/1
Villanova #2 20/1
Michigan #2 20/1
Syracuse #3 20/1
Creighton #3 20/1
Iowa State #3 33/1
Kentucky #8 33/1
Oklahoma State #9 40/1
UCLA #4 40/1
North Carolina #6 40/1
San Diego State #4 50/1
Pittsburgh #9 66/1
VCU #5 66/1
Cincinnati #5 66/1
Ohio State #6 66/1
Tennessee #11 66/1
Connecticut #7 66/1
Iowa #11 75/1
Oklahoma #5 100/1
Gonzaga #8 100/1
Memphis #8 100/1
Saint Louis #5 100/1
Baylor #6 100/1
UMass #6 100/1
New Mexico #7 100/1
Oregon #7 100/1
Texas #7 100/1
Kansas State #9 200/1
Saint Joe's #10 250/1
Nebraska #11 250/1
Providence #11 200/1
George Washington #9 250/1
Colorado #8 250/1
Stanford #10 250/1
NC State #12 300/1
Xavier #12 300/1
Harvard #12 500/1
BYU #10 500/1
Arizona State #10 500/1
Dayton #11 500/1
SF Austin #12 500/1
North Dakota State #12 500/1
Tulsa #13 1000/1
New Mexico State #13 1000/1
Delaware #13 1000/1
Manhattan #13 1000/1
Western Michigan #14 1000/1
UL Lafayette #14 1000/1
NC Central #14 1000/1
American #15 1000/1
Wofford #15 1000/1
Albany #16 1000/1
Mount Saint Mary's #16 1000/1
Weber State #16 1000/1
Coastal Carolina #16 1000/1
Cal Poly #16 1000/1
Texas Southern #16 1000/1
Eastern Kentucky #15 1000/1
UW-Milwaukee #15 1000/1
Mercer #14 1000/1
— 2014 South Region - Odds to Win —
Florida #1 9/5
Kansas #2 15/4
Syracuse #3 5/1
UCLA #4 9/1
VCU #5 9/1
New Mexico #7 12/1
Pittsburgh #9 14/1
Ohio State #6 14/1
Stanford #10 40/1
Dayton #11 50/1
SF Austin #12 50/1
Colorado #8 66/1
Tulsa #13 66/1
Western Michigan #14 100/1
Eastern Kentucky #15 100/1
Albany #16 200/1
Mount Saint Mary's #16 200/1
— 2014 West Region - Odds to Win —
Arizona #1 2/1
Wisconsin #2 4/1
Creighton #3 4/1
San Diego State #4 9/1
Oklahoma State #9 12/1
Baylor #6 14/1
Oregon #7 14/1
Oklahoma #5 16/1
Gonzaga #8 18/1
Nebraska #11 40/1
New Mexico State #1 350/1
BYU #10 66/1
UL Lafayette #14 75/1
North Dakota State #12 50/1
American #15 100/1
Weber State #16 100/1
— 2014 East Region - Odds to Win —
Michigan State #4 5/2
Virginia #1 11/4
Villanova #2 15/4
Iowa State #3 6/1
North Carolina #6 12/1
Cincinnati #5 16/1
Connecticut #7 16/1
Memphis #8 25/1
Providence #11 33/1
George Washington #9 50/1
Saint Joe's #10 50/1
Harvard #12 50/1
Delaware #13 100/1
NC Central #14 100/1
UW-Milwaukee #15 100/1
Coastal Carolina #16 100/1
— 2014 Midwest Region - Odds to Win —
Louisville #4 8/5
Duke #3 7/2
Wichita State #1 4/1
Michigan #2 11/2
Kentucky #8 12/1
Saint Louis #5 20/1
Tennessee #11 25/1
Iowa #11 25/1
Texas #7 33/1
Kansas State #9 33/1
UMass #6 40/1
Arizona State #10 50/1
NC State #12 66/1
Xavier #12 66/1
Manhattan #13 75/1
Mercer #14 100/1
Wofford #15 100/1
Cal Poly #16 200/1
Texas Southern #16 200/1
Kansas University's hopes for a postseason Big 12 basketball title to go with the regular season hardware already resting in KU's trophy case came to an end Friday night in Kansas City, Mo., thanks to the hot-shooting Iowa State Cyclones, who snapped a five-game losing streak to KU, 94-83, at Sprint Center.
The loss, KU's third in its last six games, dropped the Jayhawks to 24-9 overall and puts the them in wait-and-see mode for the unveiling of this year's NCAA Tournament bracket, which will take place Sunday afternoon.
The guess here is that the Jayhawks' win over Oklahoma State on Thursday — along with what the rest of the country is doing or has done — was enough to keep KU on the 2 line. But there's definitely some uncertainty surrounding what they'll be seeded, where they'll be sent and what the match-ups for the do-or-die tournament will look like.
None of that matters today, though, so let's jump back into the game that was on Friday night.
KU's defense was pretty poor for most of this one and it's now obvious what a huge difference having Joel Embiid in the lineup makes for Kansas. Having said that, the Cyclones are good. Real good. And the way they played on Friday — particularly the way they shot the ball (54 percent for the game, 68 percent in the second half, 58 percent from three-point range) — they would have knocked off most teams. KU played pretty well offensively, particularly in the wildly entertaining first half, and got back to doing what they do best — pushing the pace, playing tough and scoring in transition. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, they didn't do nearly enough of that and their sub-par defensive effort made things way too easy for the Cyclones throughout the decisive second half.
1 – Andrew Wiggins shot 33 percent from the floor, made just one three-pointer, generally looked just a little bit off all night and still wound up with a line that included 22 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes. When his shots didn't fall, Wiggins showed some frustration on his face, but it was good to see that the freshman didn't let an off shooting night prevent him from being a factor on the scoreboard for a team that needs him to be the man in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
2 – There were moments in this one when junior point guard Naadir Tharpe looked a little bit like Tyshawn Taylor. Let me explain. During KU's big run in the first half that turned a nine-point deficit into a 10-point lead, Tharpe pushed the tempo without hesitation and drove to the paint looking to make a play. Such moves had a higher percentage of success when Taylor did them because he had the size and skill to rise above (or around) people and finish at the rim. While Tharpe is a little challenged in that department, he seemed to figure out that good things can happen when he attacks the paint and at least puts the ball up above the rim. On a couple of occasions, teammates scooped up the rebound as Tharpe forced the defense to collapse on him and it led to easy buckets for KU. KU coach Bill Self used to talk all the time about how sometimes Taylor's ability to put shots up on the glass — even if he often missed — was considered good offense. Tharpe's shot has disappeared of late, but maybe this method can help him get back into a rhythm.
3 – No team in the currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 has more losses than Kansas, yet the Jayhawks enter Selection Sunday very much alive for a No. 2 seed. According to ESPN's Bracketology, the four other teams in the Top 25 that have nine losses like the Jayhawks are projected to be seeded 4th (North Carolina), 5th (Oklahoma), 8th (Memphis) and 10th (SMU). That's a credit to the Big 12 Conference and the tough schedule the Jayhawks have played this season and it could be enough to position this team to survive into the second weekend of the tournament, where they may get Embiid back from injury.
1 – The 94 points surrendered to the Cyclones were the most in regulation by a Bill Self team at Kansas, and they came less than a week after Self's team gave up 92 in a road loss to West Virginia. To say the Jayhawks are struggling defensively without Embiid would be putting it mildly. As is the case with a jump shooter or a scorer, playing defense requires confidence and the Jayhawks don't appear to have much of that on the defensive end without Embiid in the lineup. That's not to say they didn't have their moments. There were plenty. But a consistently strong and stingy defensive effort is something this team is missing right now and that goes as much for allowing easy buckets at the rim as it does giving up open jumpers on the perimeter. Yeah, the Cyclones were red-hot from downtown, hitting 11 of their first 16 three-point attempts, but many of them were open looks.
2 – The Jayhawks hit 81 percent of their free throws (21-of-26) so it's hard to say their misses were something to sigh about. But a few of them were pretty big. Wiggins, Ellis and Tharpe all missed their first free throw during a stretch in which KU went to the free-throw line three out of five possessions and that left as many as four points out there that KU could have had. When a team is trailing by six-to-nine points for an extended stretch of the second half, those easy points could have been the difference between making this one close and keeping ISU comfortably in front.
3 – Naadir Tharpe's shot has gone M.I.A. At times this season, the junior point guard was one of the better scoring options and one of the top shooters on the team. He hasn't been lately and that continued on Friday when he missed all three shots he attempted and didn't look real confident stepping into any of them outside of the opening shot of the game. Tharpe's nine assists, two turnovers and 5-of-6 free-throw-shooting performance were all positives. But this team needs him to find his stroke again in a hurry so that guys don't have to go for 30 or more points every night to give KU a chance.
KU's semifinal loss to Iowa State on Friday night:
• Moved KU to 24-9 on the season.
• Changed KU’s record to 10-6 in Big 12 Championship semifinals and 18-16 in all-time conference tourney semifinals.
• Made KU to 66-25 in league tournament play and 36-9 at the Big 12 Championship.
• Dropped Kansas to 10-8 in games away from Allen Fieldhouse (5-6 in true road games, 5-2 on neutral floors).
• Ended the Jayhawks’ win streak at five-straight against the Cyclones and made the Kansas-Iowa State series to 175-60 in favor of Kansas.
• Made the Jayhawks record to 23-5 all-time at Sprint Center, including 2-1 this season.
• The loss was KU’s first in Sprint Center since falling to Baylor 81-72 in the Big 12 Championship Semifinals on March 9, 2012 – ending a 10-game KU win streak in the venue.
• Changed head coach Bill Self’s record to 21-4 all-time against Iowa State, 324-68 while at Kansas and 531-173 overall. Self is also 31-10 in conference tournament play (22-5 at Kansas).
• Moved Kansas to 2,125-821 all-time.
The Jayhawks now will await their fate in the NCAA Tournament and will open play next Thursday or Friday in the second round. KU will find out where it's headed on Sunday and, if their destination for the first two rounds is St. Louis, as expected, they'll open NCAA Tournament play on Friday.
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.
It doesn't take one of the players or coaches involved in this year's Big 12 men's basketball tournament in Kansas City, Mo., to tell you just how wide open and difficult the event figures to be this year.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to hear from them either, and Kansas University coach Bill Self on Monday best summed up the task ahead in one sentence.
“I think we've always had very competitive Big 12 tournaments,” Self said when asked about the stacked nature of this year's bracket... “But I don't know if I can ever remember where if there's a final between (two lower seeds), it would be absolutely not a major surprise to anybody. When you look at our side, you've got a No. 1 (Kansas) playing No. 8 (Oklahoma State), and No. 8 was picked to win the league.”
In order to get the rubber match with Kansas, of course, Oklahoma State first will have to get past Texas Tech on Wednesday. If they do, the Cowboys and Jayhawks will tangle in the 1-8 match-up at 2 p.m. Thursday at Sprint Center.
Given the distance between the seeds of those two preseason favorites and the fact that a bunch of good teams fall in between there, it's conceivable to think that as many as eight teams head into this week thinking they have a legit shot to win the thing.
I see it more like four, with Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State (4) and then possibly Baylor (7) being the most likely teams to get hot and wind up on top.
Of course, Oklahoma (2), Texas (3) and Kansas State (5) also figure to be tough outs and West Virginia (6), which just rocked Kansas last weekend, has to like its chances on the better side of the bracket and with the edge of knowing it has to make a deep run to get into the NCAA Tournament.
With that in mind, here's my guess at what's in store for the entire week ahead, starting with today's 7-10, 8-9 match-ups all the way through Saturday's 8 p.m. championship tilt.
No. 9 Texas Tech vs. No. 8 Oklahoma State, 6 p.m.
Season series: Split 1-1. OSU lost by 4 at Texas Tech in the game in which Marcus Smart was thrown out and later suspended for shoving a fan. And the Cowboys won the rematch by 22 in Stillwater, Okla., in Smart's return from a three-game suspension.
Breakdown: It doesn't sound like many people give the Red Raiders a chance in this one, and that's understandable. Tech has some talent and athleticism and will scrap on defense, but Oklahoma State has too much offensively to go home early.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 81, Texas Tech 69
No. 10 TCU vs. No. 7 Baylor, 8:30 p.m.
Season series: Baylor 2-0. Bears rocked the Horned Frogs by a combined total of 59 points in two meetings this season.
Breakdown: The Horned Frogs have shown some heart at times this season but they've been overmatched every night and they're in desperate need of the chance to hit the reset button and to head into the offseason hoping for better things in the future.
Prediction: Baylor 88, TCU 63
No. 5 Kansas State vs. No. 4 Iowa State, 11:30 a.m.
Season series: Split 1-1. Wildcats lost by 6 in Ames in late January and won a grinder by 7 in Manhattan on March 1.
Breakdown: This might be the best match-up of the entire tournament, as these two teams played absolute gems in Ames and Manhattan and seem to match up so well against each other. Three-point shooting was key in both match-ups and the battle between Marcus Foster and DeAndre Kane is a pleasure to watch. The 'Cats haven't been great away from home this season and even though there figure to be a lot of KSU fans in Sprint Center for this one, Iowa State's fans always have traveled well for this event, too. Besides that, the early tip could neutralize some of the KSU crowd advantage. Melvin Ejim's the difference.
Prediction: Iowa State 76, Kansas State 71
No. 8 Oklahoma State vs. No. 1 Kansas, 2 p.m.
Season series: Split 1-1. KU won by two in Lawrence and had a 10-point lead with 11 minutes to play in Stillwater, but lost by 7 on OSU's home floor.
Breakdown: The blow of losing Joel Embiid for the next couple of weeks certainly stings, but I look for the Jayhawks, and the partisan Sprint Center crowd, to rally around each other, play crisp and focused basketball and knock off the Cowboys in a doozy. OSU beat KU with Embiid less than two weeks ago, so it they'll have plenty of confidence that they can do it without him. On the flip-side, KU will be looking to prove it can beat a quality opponent with or without their big man.
Prediction: Kansas 77, Oklahoma State 74
No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 2 Oklahoma, 6 p.m.
Season series: Oklahoma 2-0. Bears lost by 2 at home and then by 16 in Norman, three weeks apart.
Breakdown: Since losing to OU for the second time this season on Feb. 8, Baylor has won seven of eight games and looked like a much better team than it did during the stretch of eight losses in 10 games that came before it. Not content to simply slide into the NCAA Tournament, the Bears are hungry to prove they're worthy and are also playing to improve their seed.
Prediction: Baylor 72, Oklahoma 67
No. 6 West Virginia vs. No. 3 Texas, 8:30 p.m.
Season series: Texas 2-0. Longhorns won by 11 in Morgantown in mid-January and by 15 in Austin in mid-February.
Breakdown: Confidence is a crazy thing and the Mountaineers, who seem to be the lone Big 12 team playing for their NCAA Tournament lives this weekend, have a ton of it after drubbing Kansas and seeing guard Juwan Staten earn first-team all-Big 12 honors last weekend. They'll play with a nothing-to-lose mentality and the Longhorns, who tend to get more fired up for the more traditional rivalries — Kansas, Oklahoma, etc. — will be caught sleeping.
Prediction: West Virginia 83, Texas 75
No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 1 Kansas, 6 p.m.
Season series: Kansas 2-0. Jayhawks picked up a big, early conference victory in Ames in mid January and won by 11 at home two weeks later.
Breakdown: Getting past Oklahoma State on emotion is doable, but this is where the loss of Embiid will hurt the Jayhawks. In two wins against Iowa State this season, Embiid combined for 30 points, 20 rebounds and 6 blocks on 12-of-17 shooting. More impactful than the numbers he put up was the presence he provided. Iowa State has no answer for that kind of size, but with Embiid out, they'll be better prepared to attack the rim and kick out to their dangerous three-point shooters. Beating KU means a lot to the Cyclones and this could be their best shot to get it done.
Prediction: Iowa State 79, Kansas 74
No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 6 West Virginia, 8:30 p.m.
Season series: Split 1-1. Each team won on the other's home floor, with Baylor winning by 13 in Morgantown in late February and WVU winning by two in Waco in late January.
Breakdown: West Virginia gets the edge in the backcourt, but the Bears have an advantage in the front-court in this one. Neither team is known for its defense, but the Bears' ability to play tough and disrupt things in the paint could be the difference here. In order for Baylor to make it this far, Cory Jefferson is going to have to have a huge tournament. He's one of the more underrated players in the league and I think his passion and power along with the hot shooting of gunner Brady Heslip (who likes the Sprint Center) could be enough to carry the Bears into the title game.
Prediction: Baylor 85, West Virginia 77
No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 4 Iowa State, 8 p.m.
Season series: Split 1-1. Iowa State won by 15 in early January in Ames and Baylor won the rematch by 13 in early March in Waco.
Breakdown: Playing four games in four days is no easy task and that's what the Bears will have to do if they reach the title game. Knowing that they've solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament and running on fumes, the Bears get out-athleted in this one and simply cannot handle Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane.
Prediction: Iowa State 84, Baylor 73
There's a heck of a reunion taking place in the Mile High City and, believe it or not, at the center of it are a couple of former Kansas University football players.
When news broke Tuesday night that the Denver Broncos had reached an agreement with free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib on a six-year, $57-million deal, my mind immediately shifted to the 2008 Orange Bowl, where Talib lined up at one corner position and true freshman Chris Harris lined up at the other.
Together, Harris and Talib helped lead the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl championship that capped off a magical 12-1 season. Harris recorded an interception and four tackles in that game and Talib, never one to be outdone, made the most memorable play of the game, a pick-six interception in the first quarter that, after the game, led to these four famous words: “I felt like Deion!”
With Talib joining Harris in the Broncos secondary, the move qualifies as an instant upgrade at one of the biggest areas of weakness for the team that represented the AFC in last year's Super Bowl.
According to a report from the Denver Post's Mike Klis, in the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib, the Broncos have secured the kind of big, physical cornerback that Broncos general manager John Elway has coveted since he took control of the team's football operations three years ago.
Talib, 28, snagged four interceptions and 14 pass break-ups during the 2013 season with the New England Patriots, who often lined him up on the opponent's best wide receiver.
While all of that — the age, the talent, the size, the swagger — is great news for the Broncos' defense, I can't help but think about how pumped Harris must be about reuniting with his old KU teammate. Because of the timing of Harris' one season with Talib in Lawrence — Talib was a junior and Harris just a freshman — the relationship between the two always felt like one of big brother, little brother. Harris had great admiration for Talib's skills and always appreciated how he helped him along as a true freshman playing big-time college football for the first time.
Now that both are starters in the NFL, it doesn't to figure to be that way in Denver, but, in Harris, Talib will have a friendly face who can help him break into the Broncos' culture and show him the ropes of how to play for head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and, perhaps most importantly, a team led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
The early days of Talib's career were marred by off-the-field incidents and immaturity but his talent and ability were never questioned. After leaving Tampa Bay midway through the 2012 season, Talib latched on in New England, where Patriots coach Bill Belichick helped him clean up his image and focus on making plays and helping the team win. Although Belichick and Manning will never be mistaken for one another, being under Manning's eye figures to help keep Talib on the straight and narrow the way playing for Belichick did during the past season and a half.
Of course, being around an old running mate like Harris, who is wildly respected in the Denver community and arguably was the Broncos' most important player on defense last season, won't hurt either.
And, of course, having a pair of starters in the secondary of one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites, is nothing but good news for Kansas football.
The Kansas University football team went through its third day of spring practices on Tuesday — the first of the spring in full pads — and, although we weren't able to watch any of the action, we did get our first chance to talk with a few of the players about how the spring has gone before they hit the practice field.
Here's the latest installment of the slightly modified “What caught my ear,” blog, with a focus on the rumblings from the first few days of spring drills.
• Ben Heeney has been an animal this spring. As you might expect, the senior linebacker has been flying all over the field and making plays like we have become accustomed to seeing, but he's also upped his game in pass coverage and actually had two interceptions during one early-spring practice. That kind of thing can be contagious and it sounds like the entire defense is following Heeney's lead.
• Wide receivers Rodriguez Coleman and Nick Harwell already have made a significant impact in KU's passing game, both in terms of getting open and making catches and becoming big-play threats.
• Based on talks with the players and coaches, if I had to pick one word to describe KU's new offense it would be "simple." Now that's not simple in that it will be easy for defenses to scheme against or figure out. That's simple in that the players grasp it, understand it and can execute it. What's more, it sounds like they like it a lot.
• Speaking of the new offense, senior quarterback Jake Heaps said it's basically a no-huddle system and that, even though the Jayhawks did some no-huddle at times last year, it was usually something they put in that week or for a specific opponent. Making the no-huddle approach the foundation of their offensive system makes it easier to learn and grasp and Heaps said the goal, particularly of the upperclassmen, is to get to the point where they know what the calls are going to be on the field before they even look over to the sideline to confirm it.
• In that same vein, Keon Stowers said the biggest difference between spring this season and spring the past couple of seasons was maturity and leadership. Now that so many key players are veterans, the question of right and wrong or responsibility is not as big of an issue. That's on the field and off the field. As Stowers put it, “It's almost like we're the coaches,” and because of that the veterans have taken some of the burden of having to watch every sprint or every on-time arrival at every meeting off of KU's coaches.
• I talked with Brandon Bourbon about his opportunity at running back and the senior who opened the spring No. 1 on the depth chart said the entire stable of running backs believes that their opportunity is a little more legitimate and real now that James Sims is gone. Sims led the Jayhawks in rushing during each of his four seasons and was the workhorse rock in the Kansas backfield. Bourbon, who is coming off of his most healthy and productive season in 2013, said the group Sims left behind has a list of lofty goals but added that the only way for the Jayhawks to enjoy continued success from their running backs was for each player to remain selfish internally while striving for the best results for the team externally. Sounded like a much more eloquent way of putting the cliché about competition bringing out the best in everyone.
• I asked several offensive players in the room about new offensive coordinator John Reagan and what they saw as his primary strengths. Here were a few of the words I heard in response: 1. Coach Reagan is very engaging. He's so into everything he does that if you're not into it right there with him, he's going to pull you into it and make you a part of it. 2. Coach Reagan has a way of communicating the ins and outs of the new offense that's easy to understand. He's fun to work with and he knows what he's doing. 3. Coach Reagan is very meticulous in the way he goes about coaching. He takes his time during installation days to make sure that we're getting it and is willing to sit down with us and go over every aspect of every play in meetings if that's what it takes for us to get on the same page.
• The Jayhawks will go through their fourth of 15 spring practices on Thursday before taking 9 days off for spring break. KU's next practice after Thursday is slated for March 23.
It's crazy to think that the next piece of significant news we get about Kansas University freshman Joel Embiid could come with him sitting at a table in the Allen Fieldhouse media room, a microphone in front of face and his decision about the NBA on the tip of his tongue.
That reality became true in a very harsh manner on Monday evening, when KU coach Bill Self revealed the results of Embiid's second-opinion visit with back specialists in California, news that indicated Embiid was out for the Big 12 tournament and likely would miss the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.
The 23-8 Jayhawks are not the same team without Embiid on the floor. Opponents aren't as intimidated to drive to the rim. Points in the paint aren't as easy to come by. Heck, even as corny as they may have looked at times, the Jayhawks even miss the moments when Embiid liked to fire his long-fingered guns after a particularly big or even strong bucket.
So, yeah, there's reason to worry about KU's postseason chances without their most valuable player because the Jayhawks are not the same team without him. That might even be putting it mildly. They're a different team altogether.
But they are still talented. Very. And they are still deep. Luxuriously. And they do still have Self. Confidently. So they do still have a chance.
Playing, no advancing, without Embiid is not a simple equation. It's not as easy as saying Tarik Black has to step in and perform well in Embiid's absence because in basketball terms, mathematical equations or any other form of measurement Black does not equal Embiid. But Kansas can.
Andrew Wiggins can — and should — play more like he did against West Virginia last Saturday. He doesn't have to score 41 points each night out as long as he's that aggressive and competitive and dominant. If he is, whatever offense Black and Jamari Traylor can give in Embiid's spot will be gravy.
Defensively, the Jayhawks could tinker with a zone defense or even press more. That seems to fuel Wiggins and likely would ensure that he plays with fire. It also would limit the number of times KU would have to sit down and guard in the half court, something that has been several levels below the Kansas standard throughout the season.
There's no way to sugar coat the loss of Embiid. It's a blow. A big one. And it turns Kansas from a team that would likely be one of the favorites to win it all into just another in a big pile of worthy contenders that have to play extremely well to make it to Dallas.
Good offense won't be enough anymore. Improved defense won't either. The Jayhawks have to be impressive on both ends without Embiid if they hope to see him suit up, well and rested, for what could be a couple of pretty important games down the stretch.
The talent is there, though. And it's the will of his teammates that will determine whether Embiid's stay-or-go press conference will be the next time we hear from him or if there are still a few finger pistols to fire before the season ends.
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.
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.
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.
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).