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The Day After: Texas Tech
A home game against an overmatched Texas Tech team proved to be just the tonic the Kansas University men's basketball team needed to get over its tough loss at Oklahoma State last weekend.
Behind a monster night from Tarik Black and the good vibes that always come with Senior Night in Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks rolled the Red Raiders, 82-57, in a game that was never close after the 8-minute mark of the first half.
The victory gave Kansas an chance to celebrate its 10th straight regular season conference title with its home fans — a scene that included T-shirts, hats and all 10 Big 12 trophies being brought onto the floor after the game — and provided the perfect backdrop for the feel-good sendoff for seniors Black, Niko Roberts and Justin Wesley, as well as freshman Andrew Wiggins and possibly freshmen Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden.
Embiid did not play because of a back injury, a move that appears to be in the Jayhawks' best interest, but his absence opened the door for Black to step up and assert himself as yet another KU offensive weapon.
If Embiid sitting out sparks a strong finish for Black, it could make a huge difference for the Jayhawks and their national title aspirations and the injury to the 7-foot center could go down as a blessing in disguise.
In a span of just 15 days, against the very same Texas Tech team, the Jayhawks showed the two sides of themselves that have fans and analysts alike scratching their heads over what this team's potential really is. The first, which came in a 64-63 victory at Tech on Feb. 18, had KU fans concerned about consistency, mental toughness and point guard play. The second, which came Wednesday without Embiid, made those same folks believe that this team has as good a shot as any to make a deep run and possibly win it all. The mere fact that things could be so different against the same team just two weeks later speaks to that consistency question, but one of the biggest differences in the two games was the play of junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, who had 6 points, 2 assists and 4 turnovers on 1-of-7 shooting in Lubbock and 16 points, 5 assists and 0 turnovers on 4-of-7 shooting (3-for-6 from three-point land). Like it or not, it's becoming abundantly clear that this team will go as far as Tharpe will lead them when the postseason arrives.
Three reasons to smile:
1 – Speaking of Naadir Tharpe, the junior guard did two things in this one that made me believe he's ready to lead this team on a postseason run. The first was knock down his three-point shot. After struggling of late and misfiring on a couple of his first tries in this one, Tharpe knocked in three of his final four three-point shots and finished at 50 percent for the night. No matter who the Jayhawks play, that shot is going to be there and Tharpe is going to need to take it and make it. The other thing he did, which may be even more important, was show some pride in the way he played defense. After being torched by Robert Turner in Lubbock, Tharpe showed up with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove in this one and played with the kind of defensive intensity we've come to expect from a Bill Self point guard. The last time this happened was in the Texas game at home, when Tharpe responded to getting schooled by UT's Isaiah Taylor in Austin by shutting him down at Allen Fieldhouse. Sounds to me like his teammates need to start making up lies about opposing guards and their disrespect for Tharpe because when he plays with that kind of a chip on his shoulder his defense is noticeably better.
2 – A little credit also should go to KU's team defense in this one, as the Jayhawks held the Red Raiders to 20.8 percent shooting (5-of-24) in the first half, marking the second game in a row — and third time in four games — that KU's defense limited an opponent to first-half shooting in the 20-percent range (Texas shot 20.7 percent on Feb. 22 and Oklahoma State shot 24 percent last Saturday). Holding TTU to that 20.8-percent clip marked KU's second-best first-half performance of the season, just behind the 20.7-percent mark it forced from both UT (6-of-29) and Towson (6-of-29). What's most important to remember about this one was that it came without Embiid on the floor.
3 – Regardless of how you feel about the walk-ons and the whole Senior Night scene, you couldn't help but feel good for the KU seniors, particularly Niko Roberts, who started the first game of his career, held his own while he was out there and even scored while being showered with love from the KU fans. It's easy to forget about these guys because of how stacked the KU roster is year in and year out, but guys like Roberts show up to practice and work just as hard as the rest of them and they deserve a chance to feel the love. No place is better about dishing that love out than KU and Allen Fieldhouse.
Three reasons to sigh:
1 – Even if it is the best thing for him and the team, it has to make KU coaches, players and fans a little nervous seeing Joel Embiid in street clothes. Embiid's health is critical for this team and his presence on the floor gives KU something that no other team in the country has. Because of that, resting the injured back and making sure he's as close to 100 percent for the postseason makes the most sense. At the same time, though, you have to worry about rust and rhythm the longer he sits.
2 – Although the Jayhawks' four fast-break points in this one could be a reason to sigh, given how good the Jayhawks are in transition and how much they like to run, it also could be looked at as a reason to smile since it clearly shows that the Jayhawks did enough in the half-court to put up more than 80 points against a stingy defense. KU continues to average in that 8-12 range in fast-break points and while that number is good, this game proved that it's not imperative for KU to get out and run if it wants to have success. It does, however, make scoring easier for these guys, which never is a bad thing and eliminates some of the pressure of having to knock down outside shots.
3 – The Jayhawks were really pretty good in all areas in this one. They shot well, shared the ball (16 assists), limited turnovers (no player had more than two) and delivered good percentages from the floor (52), free-throw line (72) and three-point range (33). Because of that, looking for reasons to sigh was pretty tough. So for this last one, we'll go with the fact that senior Justin Wesley was scoreless in his last game at Allen Fieldhouse. Wesley played nine minutes and recorded a block but missed all three shots he attempted, including a pair of three-pointers, one of which rattled out and looked good the whole way. I'm sure Wesley did not care too much that he failed to crack the scoring column, but it would've been a nice way to go out.
One thought for the road:
KU's senior-night victory over Texas Tech:
• Improved KU to 23-7 on the season and gave Kansas at least 23 wins for the 25th-consecutive season and 29th time in the last 30 years dating back to 1984-85.
• Gave KU a 14-3 Big 12 and marked the sixth-straight season the Jayhawks have won 14 games in conference play.
• Closed out the home conference slate a perfect 9-0 in Big 12 games in Allen Fieldhouse, the sixth time in the Bill Self era that the Jayhawks completed an unblemished league slate.
• Marked Kansas’ 31st-straight home season finale, including 30-consecutive Senior Nights (the 2006-07 roster did not have a senior).
• Moved the Kansas-Texas Tech series to 27-4 in favor of Kansas, including 14-0 in Lawrence with all meetings in Allen Fieldhouse.
• Improved Kansas to 14-1 in Allen Fieldhouse this season, 175-9 in the venue under Bill Self and 713-109 all-time in the arena.
• Improved Self to 14-6 all-time against Texas Tech. He advanced to 323-66 while at Kansas and 530-171 overall.
• Moved Kansas to 2,124-819 all-time.
The Jayhawks will close out the 2013-14 regular season at 11 a.m. Saturday in Morgantown, W. Va., where they will look to sweep the season series with the Mountaineers. KU clubbed Bob Huggins' squad 83-69 Feb. 8 in Lawrence, behind 19 points from Andrew Wiggins.