The Day After: A barn-burner at Baylor
Toughness can be defined in different ways and covers everything from physical strength to mental triumph.
During Wednesday's 56-55 road win at Baylor, I must have seen KU coach Bill Self scream down at his team at least half a dozen times — particularly during that intense second half — in a plea for his players to be tough.
Sure, Kansas was out-rebounded by eight — including 17-9 on the offensive glass — and, yeah, there were times when the bigger, badder Baylor bodies knocked KU players to the ground while going for loose balls or rebounds. Even still, the Jayhawks delivered.
Toughness is not letting the wheels fall off when you fall behind by six points in a game where a three-point lead felt large. Toughness is not feeling sorry for yourselves when the one guy who had been playing the best offensively fouled out. Toughness is making clutch free throws when they matter most.
The Jayhawks did all of those and more on Wednesday against a good Baylor team that had some notable advantages. And because of it, the Jayhawks jumped out to 1-0 in Big 12 play and will have a chance to make that 3-0 in the next six days.
For the fourth game in a row — and the ninth time in 14 games — sophomore point guard Frank Mason led Kansas in minutes. But unlike we've come to expect from Mason in recent weeks, not all of those minutes were stellar. Mason struggled offensively in the first half and really only had one stretch where he looked good on offense. But rather than that slightly off night from their leader spelling doom, other Jayhawks stepped up and made plays to pick up the slack. This team has talent and varying degrees of confidence. But Wednesday's effort may go down as one of the biggest they'll have all season because these guys now know they can win a tough game even when Mason does not play like a super hero.
Three reasons to smile
1 – KU's ball movement was pretty good throughout the game. A lot of times when teams struggle against a zone defense, it's because passes are scarce or guys try to play too much one-on-five basketball. That was not KU's problem against the Bears. Sure, BU's length and KU's own hesitation made things tough and limited the Jayhawks to just 18 first-half points, but it was not because the Jayhawks did not share the ball and keep it moving against the zone. That showed in the second half, when KU scored 38 points and started taking and making shots born from an attacking attitude.
2 – How about Jamari Traylor? I've been hard on the guy for most of the season, but he was sensational against Baylor. He played under control, he played with purpose and he carried the KU offense when the Jayhawks were in desperate need of someone to step up. Traylor's game still has holes, but it was good to see him find success while playing under control. That should really benefit him the rest of the season and, if he can replicate it, should make him a legitimate option in the KU offense.
3 – Forget the stats or the style points, several Jayhawks made winning plays in this game. And it's those kinds of plays that bring confidence and can draw a team together. Whether you're talking about Wayne Selden's seven straight points, all on tough shots, or Traylor taking a charge or Mason immediately answering a huge Baylor three with the only one he made all night, several different Jayhawks stepped up at just the right time to snag this victory. That's a good sign that guys are (a) becoming more understanding and accepting of their roles and (b) team chemistry is rock solid.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – The Jayhawks still have not figured out how to attack and/or score over length and a presence at the rim. No one is more guilty of this than Perry Ellis, who struggled all night and finished 2-of-8 from the floor with 4 points, 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers, but several Jayhawks saw their shot attempts in close swatted or altered, especially in that rough first half. I suspect this will be a season-long issue for Kansas, which will make three-point shooting perhaps more important than ever for the Jayhawks, both as a way to get some open looks and points and to open up things in the paint.
2 – It's time to start looking at KU's rotation and minutes. Self played nine guys in this one but Landen Lucas and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk played just four and three minutes, respectively. That means KU basically won this game with a seven-man rotation. That's doable for a little while, but it's hard to imagine it holding up for 18 games in a conference as rough and tough as the Big 12, especially when foul trouble enters the equation. Freshman point guard Devonte' Graham should be back in the next game or two, and that will help tremendously. But it'll take some time for Graham to get back into the flow of things. Self's never going to be a guy who plays nine guys on a regular basis, but it would be a big boost if he had nine guys he could play on any given night. Graham's return will help, but so would improved play and confidence from Mykhailiuk.
3 – Baylor's attendance was a little hard to believe. I know the students are still on winter break and that probably contributed to some of it, but, still, you've got the 21st ranked team in the country playing host to a blueblood program ranked No. 12 and you can't even come close to filling the place? That makes no sense. Baylor listed the attendance at 7,088, but I'm guessing it wasn't even that high. Those who were there were loud and did their best to give the Bears a home-court advantage, but it's hard to believe there wasn't a better crowd. I know a lot of places don't do that well all year and then sellout when KU comes to town.
One for the road
The Jayhawks' wild, one-point win at Baylor...
• Made Kansas 12-2 or better for the second time in the past three seasons and the seventh time in Bill Self’s 12 seasons at KU.
• Marked the Jayhawks’ 24th-consecutive conference-opening victory, dating back to the 1991-92 season.
• Pushed KU’s advantage to 22-4 in the all-time series against the Bears, including 10-2 inside the Ferrell Center.
• Improved KU's season record to 5-2 in games away from Allen Fieldhouse and 2-1 in true road games.
• Made Self to 337-71 while at Kansas and 544-176 overall.
• Made KU 2,138-824 all-time.
The Jayhawks return to action at 2 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, where Texas Tech will be the opponent for KU's Big 12 home opener.