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The Day After: Oklahoma and the clincher
It would have been almost impossible for the Kansas University men's basketball team to follow up its nearly flawless performance against Texas over the weekend with a similar showing against Oklahoma on Big Monday.
But that might wind up being a good thing for the Jayhawks, who were not firing on all cylinders against the Sooners but still found a way to scrap out an 83-75 victory at Allen Fieldhouse.
Balanced offensive production ruled the day for KU, as all five starters reached double figures in scoring. And KU's defense improved steadily throughout the game, with its best defensive possessions coming in the game's most critical minutes.
When it was all rolled together, it produced the Jayhawks' 22nd victory of the season and moved the Jayhawks to 13-2 in Big 12 play, which earns them at least a share of an incredible 10th straight Big 12 title.
Regardless of how hard they had to fight, how tough the opponent was or how physical and exhausting the game became, KU's victory over Oklahoma will go down in history as the night the Jayhawks clinched their 10th straight Big 12 title. In many ways, the fashion in which this victory came was perfect for a Bill Self squad, as the Jayhawks had to show grit, toughness and perseverance to survive a tough OU team. In the end, when the game was on the line, the Jayhawks made the plays they needed to win — on both ends of the floor — and, perhaps most importantly, got critical contributions from a variety of players on the roster, young and old.
Three reasons to smile:
1 – Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe sure picked a nice time to snap his shooting slump. After hitting just 2 of 19 shots in the past three games and 10 of 39 in the past five, Tharpe drilled 6 of 7 against the Sooners and connected on his only three-point attempt and all four free throw tries while willing the Jayhawks to a hard-fought victory. KU coach Bill Self said after the game that the last 10 minutes of the game was as good as he's seen Tharpe play since he's been at Kansas. Hard to argue. Tharpe was direct, decisive, in full-on attack-mode and confident. Say what you will about the guy, but throughout all of the ups and downs of his career, the one thing that has never changed is his belief in himself. That's why he's playing the best ball of his career right now and that's why Kansas is winning. In addition to leading this team in assists by nearly double the next closest teammate, Tharpe also leads Kansas in three-point percentage among players with more than 20 attempts (39.4 percent), free throw percentage (82 percent) while averaging 30.1 minutes per game.
2 – He barely registered on the stat sheet, but I thought this was Brannen Greene's best game since Kansas State. The on-again-off-again reserve forward brought great energy to the floor during the 9 minutes he was out there, which was especially noticeable on the offensive glass, where he stole two extra possessions for the Jayhawks and gave the offense a lift on a night when the home fans were grumbling and the energy was lacking. Greene missed both shots he attempted and made just 1-of-2 free throw tries, but his contributions in the other aspects of his game — offensive rebounding, pushing the pace in transition, not turning the ball over once — showed not only his continued growth but also why Self continues to look his way even after off nights or disappointing days. By now it's clear that Greene is not the kind of player who will win a game by himself (at least not yet). But when he figures out how to do more good things than bad things during the limited time he's out there, it usually impacts the game and the outcome a great deal.
3 – We've reached that time of the year where freshmen are no longer freshmen and youth is no longer an excuse for mistakes, miscues, lapses or any other slip ups. Few players embody that the way KU freshman Wayne Selden does. Selden has been a solid but understated leader in his own right throughout the 2013-14 season, but it has become clear lately that he has no problem taking that leadership to the next level. On Monday, Selden barked at fellow-freshman Conner Frankamp when he elected not to shoot the ball with 6:30 to play in the first half and KU up by two. Not pulling the trigger resulted in a three-second call on KU during a time when the Jayhawks were trying to gain some separation. Credit Frankamp for not crying about it and Selden for having the ability to say something when something needed to be said. A couple of possessions later Selden put his money where his mouth was by burying a three-pointer from the same spot to pull KU within 29-28 with 4:30 to play in the first half. Self said after the game that Selden could become one of the better leaders KU has had here. The reason? “He gets it,” Self said. And he's getting it a little more every time out.
Three reasons to sigh:
1 – The Jayhawks started slow in the second half yet again, this time allowing Oklahoma to turn a nine-point KU lead into a one-point lead cushion barely three minutes into the second half. Self said after the game that his team is a little tired right now and that the good thing about playing Monday and then not again until Saturday is that it gives him a chance to give his guys a couple of days off. Maybe that fatigue is the reason for these second-half stutter steps, but it sure seems like it has as much to do with their mental approach as anything else. It's not that the Jayhawks gave up the lead that is a concern, rather how quickly they let it happen. Coaches often say the the first five minutes of each half are as important as anything to the outcome of any given game. If that's true, KU's has to find a way to start the second half with the same urgency and energy that it often closes the first half.
2 – It's been a while since we've seen him lose his cool, but the physical nature of OU's big men momentarily got under the skin of KU center Joel Embiid on Monday night. Not only did Embiid's frustration lead to back-to-back charging calls early in the second half, but it also was apparent on his face throughout the game as he consistently looked to the refs to voice his displeasure with the way OU's arms were flailing and bodies were banging. To Embiid's credit, he did not let the nature of the game get the best of him. After the back-to-back charges, he took a deep breath, settled in and delivered a strong finish without so much as a peep. There's a theme developing in this “Day After” and it seems to be centered around the seemingly endless examples of maturity shown by KU's youngest players.
3 – The Jayhawks were at their best in this one when they were patient in their halfcourt sets. For a team that loves to run and was coming off of a 26-0 advantage over Texas in fastbreak points over the weekend, being patient can be tough. And the Jayhawks showed that a few too many times in this one, firing up quick shots or forcing things that weren't there. When they did settle down, though, be it while waiting for Embiid to do work on the block or when Tharpe would pick and choose his spots to attack the lane, offense became a whole lot easier and the Jayhawks looked a whole lot better. There are going to be nights when the shots don't fall. That happens to every team. But KU could definitely use the film from this game as an obvious example of both what to do and what not to do when those nights pop up.
One thought for the road:
The Jayhawks' hard-fought victory over Oklahoma:
· Improved KU to 22-6 on the season, gave Kansas 22 wins for the 25th-consecutive season and for the 30th time in the last 31 years dating back to 1983-84.
· Gave KU a 13-2 Big 12 record and marked the ninth-straight year the Jayhawks have won 13 or more conference games beginning in 2005-06.
· Gave Kansas at least a share of its 10th-straight, 14th Big 12 and 57th overall conference regular-season championship. The 57 titles also added to KU’s all-time NCAA best.
· Including the 2014 campaign, three of Kansas’ 10-consecutive Big 12 titles were accomplished with no returning starters from the previous season (2005-06, 2008-09, 2013-14).
· Made KU the fifth team in NCAA history to win 10 or more consecutive conference championships (UCLA-13, 1967-79) (Gonzaga-11, 2001-11) (Connecticut-10, 1951-60) (UNLV-10, 1983-92).
· Made the Kansas-Oklahoma series 141-65 in favor of Kansas, including 71-16 in Lawrence and 44-7 in Allen Fieldhouse.
· Elevated the Jayhawks to 52-17 in ESPN Big Monday games, 28-1 in Allen Fieldhouse and 32-9 under Bill Self.
· Gave KU its 13th-straight win versus OU in Allen Fieldhouse.
· Made KU 13-1 in Allen Fieldhouse this season, 174-9 in AFH in the Bill Self era and 712-109 all-time in the facility.
· Made Bill Self 13-4 all-time against Oklahoma (13-2 while at KU), 322-65 while at Kansas and 529-170 overall.
· Made KU 2,123-818 all-time.
The Jayhawks will travel to Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday for an 8 p.m. clash with Oklahoma State. The Jayhawks held off the Cowboys 80-78 in a game they led big but had to hold on down the stretch to win as OSU sharp-shooter Phil Forte knocked in 7-of-10 three-pointers and led all scorers with 23 points, two more than KU's Naadir Tharpe.