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The Day After: Elimination at the Big 12 tourney
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.
Three reasons to smile:
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.
Three reasons to sigh:
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.
One thought for the road:
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.