After a month of struggles, a month of foul trouble and time on the bench, Kansas senior forward Tarik Black was ready for something good to happen. Each day at practice, teammates said, Black would show up, perform well and be the vocal leader that Kansas coach Bill Self wanted him to be.
Black would work with freshman center Joel Embiid, who eventually ended up with his spot, and remain a calming voice as the Jayhawks lost three of four games and stood just 6-3 on Dec. 13. And this, remember, was when Black was playing his worst.
Foul trouble. Missed layups. You name it. For a month, it felt as if Black, a transfer from Memphis, couldn’t get out of his own way.
“I knew coming here that it wasn’t going to be perfect,” Black would say. “I’m new here.”
So on Saturday afternoon, in the moments after No. 18 Kansas’ convincing 86-64 victory over Georgetown, Black strolled into the Allen Fieldhouse media room with Embiid by his side. Black had finished with 17 points and six rebounds, sparking a late first-half run that sparked a blowout victory. He had gone a perfect five for five from the floor. And when Black was asked about the Jayhawks’ imposing frontcourt, he knew just what to do.
“Look at this guy, man!” Black said, pointing toward Embiid. “This guy right here is a load himself. We can definitely do damage on the inside.”
More and more, it’s becoming clear that this Kansas team will be run through its frontcourt — even as freshman swingman Andrew Wiggins continues to grow. That’s how Self wants it, and that’s what these Jayhawks do best.
“We need to play through our bigs,” Self said. “That’s the strength of our team. And we haven’t been a really good passing team to take advantage of that.”
On Saturday, the Jayhawks, 8-3, were playing their first game at Allen Fieldhouse after a 29-day break, a building where they have now won 67 straight games against nonconference opponents. The building was packed and the crowd was juiced, but Georgetown took a little energy out of the old barn by going into a soft press and zone defense.
Wiggins (10 points on three-of-10 shooting) and sophomore Perry Ellis were struggling. Georgetown’s 350-pound center Josh Smith was scoring. And the Hoyas took a 23-17 lead with 11 minutes left in the half.
But a few minutes later, Black entered the fray, sparking a 27-11 run that led to a 44-34 lead at halftime.
Embiid added 17 points on four-of-four shooting and eight rebounds. He also recorded plenty of highlights, including a monstrous baseline block on Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen and a follow dunk on a missed three-pointer from Wiggins.
“He scores 17 points today and he takes four shots,” Self said. “What about if he’s taking 12 shots per game? So we’ve got to play through him more.”
Even when Ellis took a shot to the head in the second half and went to the locker room because of a bruised nerve in his neck, the Jayhawks controlled the interior.
“We’re dangerous,” Black said. “We’re dangerous in the frontcourt.”
Self said Ellis should be healthy in a few days. But the emergence of Black gives Self more options in the frontcourt. This is the Black that Kansas thought it was getting when he graduated from Memphis early and transferred to KU to play out his last year of eligibility.
No one expected the Black that recorded 27 fouls while playing just 28 minutes in KU’s first 10 games. It was ugly and it was hard to know how Black would respond when he lost his spot to Embiid.
“This is how he’s been practicing almost every day,” Self said. “And it’s a great lesson for young kids to learn. His attitude has been great. He lost his starting spot to Joel, and his attitude probably even got better.”
Black said: “The time was going to come.”
On Saturday, Black’s parents, Lawrence and Judith, were in town from his native Memphis, Tenn. At his previous college stop, they could go to games all the time. This year, it’s been a little rarer. So Black wanted to take advantage.
“I used to be able to look up in the stands back home when I was playing,” Black said of his mother. “I knew exactly where she used to sit.”
For Black, it was the kind of day he needed. For Kansas, it was another step for a young team.
“We’re a work in progress,” Self said. “You think about it: Our two leading scorers probably had about as poor a first half offensively as they’ve had in a long time and we scored 44 points. So those are positive things.
“I think we’re getting better.”