The Kansas Jayhawks walked back toward the bench slowly, their heads and shoulders slung toward the ground. Kansas coach Bill Self stepped out onto the Hilton Coliseum floor, looking at his team, casting his stare at no one in particular.
Self had just burned another timeout here on Saturday night. Another attempt to stop an Iowa State avalanche and salvage something in a pivotal Big 12 road game. The Jayhawks trailed by double-digits — again. Iowa State was running roughshod in transition. Kansas was being lapped — and then left to rot — inside a Hilton Coliseum deathtrap.
“We were just being lazy,” Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham would say
By the end of the night, the final score read like this: No. 11 Iowa State 86, No. 9 Kansas 81.
But the enduring image — the one that will haunt Kansas, especially after a late run made it interesting in the final minutes — was this: Iowa State’s Bryce Dejean-Jones and Jameel McKay sprinting in the open floor, blowing past two KU defenders, leaving a trail of vapor as the Jayhawks jogged back on defense.
It happened more than once.
“It was basically just giving them points that they didn’t have to earn,” Self said.
Iowa State notched a cathartic home victory, jumbling the Big 12 standings. But it was the way it all unfolded that was most frustrating for Self. The Cyclones ran all night, recording 21 fast-break points — Self believed the number was actually 27 — and Kansas could never adjust.
“We ended up sending three (guys) back,” Self said. “But unfortunately two of the three, it seemed to me, couldn’t remember to get back. We did a terrible job in transition.”
For Kansas, it’s now game on in the Big 12 race. The Jayhawks dropped to 14-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big 12, dropping into a tie with Iowa State, 13-3 and 3-1, and falling a half-game behind surprise leader Kansas State.
The Big 12 will be a long, hard slog. The Jayhawks still have 14 conference games left. But Saturday’s loss was perhaps a reminder of what everybody expected anyway. If Kansas is going to capture at least a share of an 11th straight Big 12 title, the Jayhawks are going to do it the hard way.
On Saturday night, Kansas allowed Iowa State to shoot 50.8 percent from the floor. Forward Perry Ellis would finish with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and Frank Mason would add 21 points while fighting through leg cramps. But by the end, Kansas couldn’t scrounge up enough offense to offset its defensive lapses.
Which led to the second enduring image: There was freshman forward Cliff Alexander, sitting on the Kansas bench, playing just two minutes in the second half after putting up six points and six rebounds in the first half. The reason: Self appeared to be unhappy with Alexander’s effort and motor on defense.
“I think the big thing is you got to play with a motor,” Self said, when asked about Alexander. “When you’re guarding a guy that’s active on the perimeter, you got to at least close out or be in a stance or do some things to try and guard him. I didn’t think that was the case at all.”
As Self spoke, he sat at a microphone in the bowels of Hilton Coliseum. More than three hours earlier, his Jayhawks had emerged from a tunnel and bathed in the familiar sound that cascaded off the building’s old walls: “BOOOOOO!!!”
Three Iowa State students, dressed as characters from the “Wizard of Oz”, held up a sign that portrayed Self as Dorothy. Another Iowa State student mocked Kansas’ choice of shoes with a simple sign: “Kansas wears adidas.” ESPN’s “College GameDay” television crew was still taking up space at half court.
Earlier in the day, former Duke star and television commentator Jay Williams had unbuttoned his dress shirt on a live broadcast and flashed the colors of Iowa State. For the second time in four conference games, the Jayhawks were road underdogs in the Big 12. And with Hilton Coliseum packed more than 20 minutes before tip, the scene here was pretty clear. In a game with major implications in the Big 12 race, Kansas was far behind enemy lines.
And for the first time in three seasons, Iowa State protected its home court with Kansas in town.
“In order for us to compete with them for the league championship,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, “we had to win this game.”
The Jayhawks, of course, had already survived in the final seconds at Baylor, and they had handled Texas Tech and Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse. But in some ways, the Jayhawks’ required path to a possible 11th straight Big 12 title became real on Saturday night in Ames.
It won’t be easy. There will be more environments like this one. And Kansas must find a way to recover and adapt.
“I think the environment got us in our mind where we were sped up,” Self said. “We didn’t focus or execute very well.”