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.
In an all orange auditorium tucked between Boone Pickens Stadium and Gallagher-Iba Arena a couple of weeks ago in Stillwater, Okla., Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis uttered a few words that hinted at the fact that he might be leaning toward changing his offense.
“I think we know where we'd like to go,” Weis said in reference to his offense, just moments after his team lost 42-6 to Oklahoma State and did so with true freshman quarterback Montell Cozart playing the entire second half.
Exactly one week later, Weis and the Jayhawks went there and the result was the program's first Big 12 victory since November 2010, a 31-19 whipping of West Virginia at happy-once-again Memorial Stadium.
The direction Weis has taken this offense — is less than two years in charge, remember — is about much more than just changing quarterbacks. It's about changing an old-school, ultra-successful, wildly accomplished ball coach's thought methodology altogether and making him squirm a little in the process.
When Weis arrived at Kansas, he brought with him years worth of success in the pro-style offense that features and makes stars out of drop-back passers like Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps and has put countless players in the NFL and worked wonders for many who already were there when Weis worked with them.
Because of that success and his confidence in his own ability, Weis spent the better part of two seasons believing that it could work at Kansas. But the Jayhawks do not have the offensive line nor the skill position players to make such a system work and, in the Big 12 Conference, where virtually every other team is throwing hay-makers week in and week out, Weis' inability to put points on the board put the Jayhawks in a hole.
Instead of being stubborn to the bitter end, Weis elected to change. If we've learned anything about the guy during his first two years in town it's that he's not afraid to check under every rock to see if he might find something, anything, that could help his team or heal his offense — all in the name of winning.
After tweaking the depth chart, moving players in and out of the lineup and replacing precious hours of sleep with more film breakdown, Weis reached the classic conclusion that states, “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,” and then went on to have a heck of a good time last Saturday, one that several Jayhawks and Jayhawk fans won't soon forget.
Cozart was a big part of it; and his ability and maturity beyond his years seem to have KU well positioned to take this idea and run with it (no pun intended) into the future.
But, to me, the biggest tip of the cap here goes to Weis. Yes, the players made the plays — the O-Linemen blocked their tails off, Cozart was nearly flawless and James Sims once again looked like one of the best backs in the Big 12. But executing the game plan the coaches come up with is what these guys do, and, for most of them, it's easy — even if it's a total overhaul in a short time — because they're so hungry for something good to happen.
Swallowing your pride, discarding 30-plus years of offensive wisdom with a proven track record and joining the masses in the wild and crazy spread movement is not as easy. But Weis did it. And the Jayhawks won.
More important than that, it looks like he's willing to do it for a long time.
We get great access to the Kansas University football team following its games on Saturday, but we don't get to go into the locker room. Our interviews take place in the auditorium and lounge at the Anderson Family Football Complex.
Thanks to the folks at KU Athletics, though, we were able to get a peek at the locker room celebration following yesterday's 31-19 victory over West Virginia.
Here's a look: