LAWRENCE — It only took a few moments of Bill Self’s news conference to understand what he values for his teams above all else.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Before a second question was asked, Self described players and action with terms like “whipped,” and “beat down,” and called Kansas a “soft team playing against a very aggressive one.”
Self cherishes physicality and he saw very little of that in Saturday’s 85-80 loss to Oklahoma State that stunned many observers except those who had been watching Kansas in recent weeks. The Jayhawks, despite their record, winning streaks, ranking and aura, were a team on the brink of a loss. Saturday, the Cowboys delivered it with a superb performance.
But as much as Self is correct about Oklahoma State’s competitive edge, another toughness factor played a bigger role.
The Jayhawks were soft-minded. Having Marcus Smart power to the boards for offensive rebounds, as he did six times in the second half to help Oklahoma State score 17 second-chance points, was as much a function of not rotating and blocking out as it was Smart’s “man among boys” play, as Self said.
Or Kansas players picking up their dribble in dangerous spots, or making bad decisions in shot selection. Self abhors seeing a ball get ripped from one of his players’ hands, and he substitutes on the spot when he sees a pattern emerging. So it was with Elijah Johnson. His continued poor play was the biggest factor in the Jayhawks’ downfall. KU might have played soft, but the teams were even in rebounding, steals and blocks.
The game’s crucial statistic was Johnson’s four turnovers. They were killers, and three in particular spoke directly to the team’s lack of mental toughness.
Kansas, down 14 in the first half and nine early in the second, battled back to lead 66-62 and had the ball. Johnson carelessly threw away the possession. The Cowboys cut it to one, and again Johnson threw the ball out of bounds.
The game had swung, and Oklahoma State’s lead grew to as many as eight with a minute remaining. But Kansas didn’t go 102-1 at Allen Fieldhouse the last six seasons entering Saturday without a few miracles. The one earlier this year against Iowa State comes to mind.
Sure enough, sharpshooting reserve guard Andrew White III buried a three, made three free throws and with 7.9 seconds remaining, the Jayhawks had the ball. Johnson brought it up the floor and had space to take the three for the tie. Take and make this one, grab the victory in overtime, and this would be one of the most memorable triumphs in the building’s history.
Instead, Johnson used a cross-over dribble and appeared to be driving when the ball was stripped.
Teammates showed support for Johnson afterward. Kevin Young said he told Johnson to “keep his head up. We all made mistakes that would have changed the game.”
But Self wasn’t as compassionate.
“It’s sad,” Self said of substituting on Johnson’s mistakes. “But we needed something, and we were definitely a better team with him over there sitting down next to us.”
Point guard isn’t Johnson’s natural position, and results from the transition had been acceptable until recently. So what if he wasn’t Tyshawn Taylor, Sherron Collins, Mario Chalmers or Aaron Miles? Kansas was winning.
And the Jayhawks knew the deal coming into the season. The three returning starters from last season’s national title finalists were glue guys, not leading players. Slide Johnson to point, let Jeff Withey and Travis Releford do their defensive thing, add a great talent in Ben McLemore and this thing could work. And mostly it has.
But Saturday’s outcome was a revelation. Teams without more than capable point-guard play don’t last long in the postseason.
“We don’t have a point guard,” Self said.
As down as he was on Johnson, that wasn’t meant as an insult. Kansas starts a shooting guard who plays the point and brings Naadir Tharpe off the bench in reserve. Saturday and a few times during the last three weeks, the Jayhawks’ offense has operated less hectically with Tharpe. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Also different from past years: often there is no second ball handler on the floor. McLemore and Releford aren’t those guys.
So, Self must manage the position better, tweak things to limit the damage as much as possible. It’s a given this team isn’t going to score much — Saturday ended a streak of six straight games when Kansas scored fewer than 70 points. Such a stretch hasn’t happened since the 1975-76 season.
Defense and rebounding, the Jayhawks’ calling cards, have become even more vital to this team’s success.
Still, Kansas’ best chance to make a March run is with an improved Johnson, whose confidence has to have hit a low point.
He’s never needed to be a big scorer for this team. Game manager will work fine. But throwing away the ball when Kansas has the momentum and the turnover on the final possession leaves you wondering if Johnson’s head is in the game.
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.