The Day After: Cutting down the Cowboys
The Kansas University men's basketball team jumped out to 3-0 in Big 12 play with a 67-57 victory over Oklahoma State on Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
Despite the double-digit victory, this one was not easy. KU had to earn everything it got and did that more often than not by taking contact and heading to the free throw line.
The KU-OSU rivalry has become one of the best in the Big 12 during the past few seasons and, despite the absence of former OSU star Marcus Smart, Tuesday's clash did not disappoint as tempers flared, intensity was at a season-high and both teams needed every ounce of toughness they could muster to hang in there.
That's great news for this still-young Kansas team, which already has a gritty and gutsy road-win at Baylor and now this tough triumph over Oklahoma State under its belt in three conference games. Those kinds of early tests should better prepare the Jayhawks (14-2) for the grind of the next 15 Big 12 games and whatever lies beyond that.
Most people are going to remember Tuesday's Oklahoma State victory for the missed free throws, another big-time game from Frank Mason, another step forward for the ever-improving Kelly Oubre and the latest physical showdown between the Jayhawks and Cowboys. But, for my money, the story of the game was the Kansas defense. Oklahoma State entered the game with the top two leading scorers in the Big 12 (Phil Forte and Le'Bryan Nash) and those two exceeded their averages, yet OSU scored just 57 points. Cowboys coach Travis Ford shared his frustration after the loss by simply saying that OSU had to find a way for other guys to score. Forte and Nash combined for 39 points (4 points above their combined average) against Kansas but the other 10 guys who played scored just 18 points. KU closed out on shots, forced the action by picking up its defense well above the three-point line, rebounded extremely well (OSU got just 3 offensive boards) and held OSU to 31.4 percent shooting. You've heard it before, but you can't hear it enough: Offense will take a night or two off, but defense can always be there. And it's clear that these young Jayhawks understand that.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Frank Mason made just 3 of 8 field goals and still was the best player in the game – by far. Why or how, you ask? Mason is such a tough competitor that determining whether his contribution was positive or negative on any given night goes far beyond the stat sheet. He led everybody with nine rebounds, most of them coming by helping clean up the defensive glass, and showed the kind of toughness, leadership and determination KU needed to be able to compete in a game as physical and emotional as Tuesday's battle with OSU. When your leader does that night in and night out, others tend to follow without even realizing they're doing it.
2 – Devonte' Graham is an absolute difference maker and he has barely missed a beat since returning from a six-game stint on the bench because of injury. It's not just the numbers that Graham puts up that make his presence important. It's the way he plays. He's tough, scrappy, confident and, above all, fun. That kind of energy brings a big lift to the floor and is the perfect complement to Frank Mason and his bulldog mentality. Self touched on it after the game, but Graham's defense on OSU sharp-shooter Phil Forte played a big role in keeping one of the Big 12's top leading scorers so quiet.
3 – Cliff Alexander played just 5 minutes in the second half after pouring in 7 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16 energy-packed minutes in the first half. The reason this is good news is because Bill Self said after the game that Alexander's limited minutes in the second half had nothing to do with his play. And it didn't sound like there was any kind of message being sent or discipline being dished out. It was just one of those nights where Self looked out onto the floor, liked what he saw out there and couldn't find a time or a place to plug Alexander back in. That'll happen. It'll be a problem if it happens too much, but it's big news that the pine time was not tied to Alexander's performance or a punishment.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – Forget the free throw shooting, (even though KU missed 14 charity shots, it still made 32 and got to the line nearly 50 times) the bigger concern on Tuesday was KU's three-point shooting. With nearly half of their points coming from the free throw line, the Jayhawks got very little in the way of jump shots in this one. Wayne Selden hit a three-pointer early, Kelly Oubre did, too, and Mason drilled a big one after he and his teammates tracked down two extra shots on one possession. Outside of that, KU misfired on nine other tries from downtown and only took 12 total. Fortunately for the Jayhawks, the Cowboys were just as cold, finishing 3-of-16 from three-point range and shooting 31.4 percent from the floor for the game.
2 – Who would've thought, before the season, that KU could beat a Top-25 opponent with Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden combining to shoot 3-for-15 from the floor? Not me. By now, we've seen Ellis come in and out of these mini-funks or slumps and it seems, at least at this point, that it's just something the Jayhawks and KU fans may have to live with. There's something not right with Selden, too, and I'm not talking physically. His struggles around the rim are only getting worse, not better, and, despite the fact that his jumpers still look good, the guy just can't buy one at the bucket unless it's in transition. Props to the rest of the team for finding a way without these two guys, but if their offensive funks linger, it could catch up to this team at some point.
3 – Bill Self said it best when he called Cliff Alexander's technical foul against the Cowboys bad and Jamari Traylor's worse. The reason? Traylor's a veteran who has been around the program and Big 12 battles long enough to know better. Emotion is a great part of the game, and, when utilized properly, can really give a team a lift. But when the emotions spill over into taunting or technical fouls due to some kind of physical altercation, that's when the line has been crossed. It's not like either guy has made a habit of these bonehead plays, so it's not complete cause for concern. But there's no doubt that Tuesday's technicals are the last Self wants to see, especially now that these guys have had the opportunity to “learn their lesson.”
One for the road
KU's third Big 12 victory in three tries this season:
• Made the Jayhawks 14-2 or better for the second time in the past three seasons and the seventh time in Bill Self’s 12 seasons at KU.
• Saw Kansas go 3-0 to start Big 12 play for the ninth-straight season and the 11th time under Self.
• Increased KU’s lead in the all-time series against Oklahoma State to 110-55, including 60-11 in games played in Lawrence and 45-9 inside Allen Fieldhouse.
• Extended Kansas’ win streak inside Allen Fieldhouse to 17 games, which includes an 8-0 mark this season.
• Changed KU’s all-time record inside Allen Fieldhouse to 721-109, including 183-9 under Self.
• Improved Self to 339-71 while at Kansas, 14-9 against his alma mater (13-6 at Kansas) and 546-176 overall.
• Made KU 2,140-824 all-time.
The Jayhawks will head out onto the road for another tough test at 8 p.m. Saturday, when they'll take on Iowa State in Ames. It's College Gameday at Hilton Coliseum so you can bet the Cyclones fans will be more than a little fired up for this one.