Kansas coach Bill Self crouched on a knee and looked forward at his team, running through a list of extemporaneous messages in the opening minutes of the second half.
He burned his eyes into sophomore Frank Mason, delivering a lesson about trapping the post. He turned around and stared at freshman wing Kelly Oubre, who had just been pulled after a sluggish start to the second half. Then Self looked at the rest of his guys, his eyes and flushed cheeks needing no real translation.
“Pitiful energy,” Self would say later.
It was late on Wednesday night inside the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, a cozy high school gym that is serving as TCU’s temporary home this season. By the end of the night, No. 9 Kansas would stumble out of the building with a 64-61 victory, an ugly, choppy and otherwise forgettable performance on the road.
In the final 3 minutes, Kansas nearly blew an 11-point lead before sophomore guard Brannen Greene appeared to ice the game with two free throws and a key block with 20 seconds left. Even then, TCU had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Charles Hill Jr. hit the back iron on a desperation three-pointer after Mason missed two free throws.
With one final sigh, the Jayhawks could exhale. Not that Self was in the mood to feel too much relief.
“I’ve been to the dentist and got a root canal,” Self said. “And I may have enjoyed that slightly more than watching the last 2 minutes.”
It was that kind of night — one of those nights where you just feel off. In the moments after the game, Self exuded a general sense of frustration. Four days after delivering a complete performance in a road victory at Texas, the Jayhawks had to survive on a mix of guile and guts on Wednesday night.
Maybe some fortunate bounces, too.
“I’ll say we, because (the) coaching staff, everybody’s included,” Self said. “We were a little full of ourselves, because we did play very, very well in Austin. I’m OK with the outcome today. I was just not OK with our energy or our attention to detail at all.
“We had guys check in the game and forget to block out on a free throw. We were out of it.”
In the early minutes of the second half, the Jayhawks trailed by a basket. They had squandered an early 13-point lead. They had played most of the night without Perry Ellis, who had picked two fouls in the opening 90 seconds of the first half. They were, in simple terms, in a certain amount of trouble.
Nothing about Wednesday night was fun or easy for Kansas. Not the flow of the offense, which was awful throughout. Not the way TCU kept punishing the Jayhawks on the offensive glass. The Horned Frogs finished with an astounding 26 offensive rebounds. Oubre was playing through illness — though it didn’t keep him from avoiding the wrath of Self on the sideline. The frontcourt battled foul trouble, with Ellis, Cliff Alexander and Jamari Traylor all picking up two fouls in the first half.
“We got to do better,” Greene said. “We can’t play like that. We thought we were building from Texas. We still are, but if we want to keep building, we can’t have performances like this.”
By the end, though, it didn’t matter. The Jayhawks improved to 17-3 overall and 6-1 in the Big 12, maintaining sole possession of first place entering Saturday’s Sunflower Showdown with Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse. More important, perhaps: Kansas is now 3-1 on the road in a conference where road wins are precious and scarce — ask Iowa State.
On Wednesday, the formula for a victory looked like this: After falling behind 43-40 with more than 13 minutes left, the Jayhawks pieced together a 12-0 run. Mason finished two baskets at the rim. Reserve big man Landen Lucas knocked down free throws. And when freshman guard Devonte’ Graham finished a layup in transition, the Jayhawks led 52-43 with 8:51 left.
“We all took the challenge,” said Mason, who finished with a team-high 16 points.
The Jayhawks would hold TCU scoreless for nearly 6 minutes, using a stifling defense to help close out a rather blah performance. The Horned Frogs shot just 30 percent from the floor. The Jayhawks blocked 12 shots.
Two years ago, of course, the Jayhawks left Fort Worth with one of the most shocking losses in recent memory — a setback that put the phrase “Topeka YMCA” in the Jayhawks lexicon. On Wednesday, a Kansas loss would not have been as stunning. In three years, TCU coach Trent Johnson has built the Horned Frogs into a respectable college basketball outfit. But a loss would have potentially been calamitous for the Jayhawks’ Big 12 title hopes. In that regard, the Jayhawks found a way to escape major damage.
“We were not energetic, and soft,” Self said, “and that’s not a very good combination on the road. We were very fortunate that we made enough plays.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.