Before Thursday was over, Kansas had already faced two opponents. First came Texas Tech, the Jayhawks’ patsy in a humdrum 91-63 blowout in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals at the Sprint Center.
But in the minutes after the bludgeoning, after top-seeded Kansas had set a Big 12 Tournament record by shooting 66 percent from the floor, the Jayhawks were already getting a taste of opponent No. 2.
Iowa State was waiting for the Jayhawks in the semifinals. In fact, after the fifth-seeded Cyclones knocked off No. 4 seed Oklahoma in the day’s first game, they came right out and said it. They wanted Kansas.
“We’re excited to be able to play them again,” KU senior center Jeff Withey said. “There is a lot of controversy and stuff like that, and it will be a fun game.”
Yes. Controversy. Stuff like that. In this case, Withey was referencing the Jayhawks’ 108-96 overtime victory over Iowa State on Feb. 25 at Hilton Coliseum. The win helped lift Kansas to a share of its ninth straight Big 12 regular-season title. But it also sparked a wave of controversy.
And you probably don’t need to be reminded of the details. But here goes: Final minute. Kansas senior Elijah Johnson on his way to a remarkable 39 points. But first, two questionable calls. A no-call on what could have been a Johnson charge. A hold whistled on Iowa State freshman Georges Niang. And a statement from the Big 12 the next day acknowledging errors had been made.
Add in the fact that Kansas nearly lost to Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 9, escaping with the help of a banked-in three-pointer by freshman guard Ben McLemore, and this much was clear: There will be plenty of drama when the two teams meet at 6:30 p.m. Friday. And Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg probably won’t be resorting to any motivational ploys.
“He doesn’t need to try real hard to motivate his team,” KU coach Bill Self said, “just like I hope I don’t have to try real hard to motivate mine.”
But first, the Jayhawks, 27-5, had to take care of business against Texas Tech, a team that had suffered a 37-point defeat at Allen Fieldhouse just 10 days earlier. Thursday’s matchup figured to include more of the same, especially after McLemore scored 12 points in the opening six minutes as the Jayhawks took a 15-2 lead.
But the Red Raiders, 11-20, didn’t fold, cutting the lead to 27-25 on a bucket by Jordan Tolbert with 3:11 left in the first half. Even as KU finished the half on a 7-0 run, the pro-Kansas crowd had to generate its own energy.
McLemore, who finished with 24 points, helped change that in the second half. With Kansas on the verge of total control, McLemore kicked open the floodgates with two three-pointers.
And soon enough, the rout was on.
“That’s what Kansas is,” Texas Tech coach Chris Walker said.
But it wasn’t necessarily what KU was last Saturday in a loss to Baylor. The Jayhawks had gone down to Waco and came up empty with a chance to bring home an outright league title. The way Self puts it, his team played like it had a safety net. And, of course, it did. The Jayhawks still won a Big 12 title. But now, with the NCAA Tournament just a week away, the Jayhawks need to learn to play free.
“The biggest thing you can learn is there’s no more safety nets,” Self said. “Just like the seniors playing. There’s no safety net. You’re on a tightrope and there’s no net.”
When Kansas takes the floor against Iowa State, it may certainly feel like they’re in some circus act. The Cyclones play fast, shooting threes with reckless abandon, and they can be a poor matchup for Kansas.
Iowa State can pull Withey away from the basket, and Self says his team must find a way to slow down the Cyclones’ high-octane offense.
“I think it will bode (well for us), if the game isn’t as well-played,” Self said. “We have to do something to not let them have rhythm. And that, to me, is usually when we give ourselves the best chance of winning.”
There’s an old adage in sports, true or not, that it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season. But if Iowa State is motivated by revenge, the Jayhawks could be motivated to quiet the persistent questions about that victory in Ames.
When the questions came up on Thursday, Self recalled something that his old boss, former Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, used to say.
“Over a course of a season, over a course of a career, those calls balance out over time,” Self says. “They’re unbelievably good when it happens, and they’re unbelievably bad when it happens. But usually, there’s both ways.
“The bottom line is, that’s not on us. They can use whatever on motivation, which is what they should do. But on us, our guys just play.”