The Day After: Revenge against West Virginia
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said it best when trying to explain how his Mountaineers lost Tuesday night's game at Allen Fieldhouse, 76-69 in overtime to a Kansas team that did not lead one time in the entire second half.
Forearms on the table, shoulders slumped, head staring down, Huggins said simply, “There's just some things that happened that you can't explain.”
Several of the “things” Huggins was referencing were miscues by his team. Missed free throws in crucial moments, the full-court pass that went out of bounds late, an air-balled three-pointer in transition when the right play would've been to milk the clock and others. Huggins lamented all of those hiccups and more after watching his team cough up an 18-point lead to Kansas that helped the Jayhawks clinch Big 12 title No. 11 in a row outright.
But there was another part of Tuesday's game that no one in the West Virginia locker room wanted to talk about, and it's the one thing that has been consistent for this inconsistent Kansas team all season long — the Jayhawks benefited from playing in an incredible atmosphere full of fans who did their part to will the team to victory.
Generally speaking, I'm a believer that it's the players — and to a lesser degree the coaches — who decide the outcome of games and nothing else. But it's hard to argue with the fact that the noise, intensity and intimidation that bounced off the Allen Fieldhouse walls in those final frenzied minutes had to have at least some kind of impact on West Virginia letting its lead slip away. Huggins did not buy that either, saying, “I don't know what the building has to do with anything to be honest with you,” but whether he agreed with it really did not matter.
You could see it on the faces of the West Virginia players. The impact showed up in the plays they made and did not make down the stretch. And, as Huggins mentioned, that might be one of the only ways to explain some of those “things” that cost the Mountaineers, who played an incredible game and did so without two veteran starters.
This is a weird team with a lot of holes, a couple of significant issues and less depth than anyone expected it would have when the season began. But confidence can be a funny thing, and the way the Jayhawks won the last two games — down-to-the-wire home wins over Texas and West Virginia — has to have this team feeling good about its chances to find a way to win against anybody. KU showed more toughness in closing out both of those games than it has at just about any point this season. More important than that, the Jayhawks won Tuesday's game without getting much from injured leading scorer Perry Ellis. KU has trailed at halftime in 12 games this season, including the past three. But the Jayhawks have found a way to win most of those, with toughness being the key ingredient in all three comebacks. KU is a much different team at home than it is anywhere else, but with the rest of the season — however long it goes — coming away from Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks will have to channel the fight and ferocious play that they put forth to win the past two games to help get them through the next couple of weeks. Luckily for the Jayhawks, those two games, what worked and what didn't and the confidence and pride that came from both results will be fresh in their minds.
Three reasons to smile
1 – For the second game in a row, KU coach Bill Self turned the Jayhawks' offense into the simplest possible style when he told his team to just drive it, just drive it. Frank Mason, Devonte' Graham, Kelly Oubre and even Jamari Traylor did just that and the Mountaineers struggled to stop it. That style, which led to 42 points in the paint (on 21 total field goals) and 43 free throw attempts, helped KU get easy points — and I say easy because they were close to the rim, not because they were wide-open, uncontested shots — and cut into the Mountaineers' lead both with high-percentage plays and with the clock sopped in crucial moments.
2 – I'm not sure KU would've won this game without Hunter Mickelson. His numbers were modest, though very solid and unexpected for him, but it was his energy, effort and fearless attitude early that helped keep KU in the game. With the rest of the team struggling with turnovers, missed jumpers and frustrated by West Virginia's tough, physical and intense defense, Mickelson picked up a couple of loose balls for buckets, grabbed a a couple of rebounds and even blocked a shot to help show the rest of the Jayhawks the way. He finished with 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks and 3 steals in 13 minutes and just might have made a case for a little more playing time in the near future. He's still a step slow at times, but he's long, athletic and moves well. I can't help but think those traits for a handful of minutes will come in handy against at least one or two of KU's next few opponents, perhaps starting with Saturday at Oklahoma.
3 – There was a significant mental edge gained by the Jayhawks on Tuesday night that could help this team big time in the near future. After Devonte' Graham hit 2 free throws to tie the game at 59 with 11.5 seconds to play, West Virginia had the ball and a chance to win. A couple of weeks ago, when KU was in the same position against this same team — needing a late stop for a shot at victory — Juwan Staten got to the rim and hit the game-winner. Staten was not in uniform on Tuesday night, so there's no telling what would've happened if he had been out there. But KU's defense came up with the stop in the final seconds this time, thanks to a big-time contest of a three-pointer by Frank Mason and a blocked shot by Landen Lucas on the rebound. Coming through in that situation not only helps build KU's confidence but also can essentially wipe out or at least make the failed first attempt a wash.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – There's no two ways about it: The Perry Ellis injury is a major concern for this team. KU coach Bill Self sounded encouraged that Ellis would be able to return in time for the Big 12 tournament next week, but will he be 100 percent? Even though KU is saying it's just a sprained knee, Ellis' return to the lineup, whenever it comes, does not necessarily mean he'll pick up where he left off when he injured the knee. The only hint of a silver lining here is that KU will have a couple of games under its belt without him to get used to not being able to count on the Wichita junior for everything the way they had in the previous three or four games prior to Tuesday night.
2 – Because of their versatile collection of talented athletes, the Jayhawks can play a number of different styles. But it seems clear that the one style this team does not enjoy is the physical, in-your-face style that the Mountaineers hit them with on Tuesday night. That's not to say KU can't get physical, it just doesn't seem like it likes to play that way. Given that the Big 12 tournament figures to be a dogfight and the NCAA Tournament features physical, all-out intensity from start to finish, KU's going to have to find more comfort in playing that way if it hopes to make a run, and, again, the result of these past two games could and should go a long way in helping them get there.
3 – Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene continue to struggle offensively. Selden, who shot just 2-for-7 and finished with 4 points on Tuesday night, has done enough away from the offensive end to make up for his shortcomings there throughout the season. But Greene's s struggles with his outside shot stretched into another game and have to be a concern. Greene is 0 for 11 from three-point range in the past three games and 2 for 19 in past six games. Even with that being the case, he still possesses that kind of shot that you think is going in every time if he gets an open look. He got a few of those on Tuesday and looked much less rushed and forced in putting up his shots. KU needs him to get going again, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time until he does.
One for the road
KU's crazy comeback victory over West Virginia on Tuesday:
• Clinched the Jayhawks’ 11th-consecutive Big 12 Conference regular-season title outright. Kansas now has a two-game lead in the conference race with just one game remaining.
• Made Kansas 24-6 overall, giving KU 24 victories for the 10th-straight season.
• Bumped KU's record to 13-4 in Big 12 play, marking the 10th-consecutive season that the Jayhawks recorded 13 league wins, beginning in 2005-06.
• Earned Kansas the No. 1 seed in the 2015 Big 12 Championship. KU will play in the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 12, at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN2. The Jayhawks will face the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 seed game to be played March 11. This is the seventh-consecutive year (beginning in 2009) that KU will enter the event as the No. 1 seed and the 12th time in the 19-year history of the Big 12.
• Extended Kansas’ winning streak in home finales to 33-straight seasons, which began in 1983-84.
• Pushed KU's edge in the Kansas-West Virginia series to 4-2 in favor of KU, including 3-0 inside Allen Fieldhouse.
• Marked the 24th-straight victory inside Allen Fieldhouse, including a 15-0 record in the venue this season. Overall, the Jayhawks are 728-109 all-time inside their storied venue and 190-9 at home under Bill Self.
• Improved Self to 349-75 while at Kansas, 4-2 against West Virginia and 556-180 overall.
• Made KU 2,150-828 all-time.
The Jayhawks close out the regular season at 3 p.m. Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, where they'll look to hold off the Sooners in the season finale. KU knocked off OU, 85-78 Jan. 19 at Allen Fieldhouse.