Kansas was ranked No. 1 in the nation after going 28-3 in the regular season, and the Jayhawks seem to have the sort of stuff that Final Four runs are built on.
Some of those pivotal elements include the intangible traits of being able to rally from behind and simply finding ways to win most of the many games they’ve played down to the wire.
But those virtues also mean KU is plenty vulnerable if it’s off-kilter or anything less than the sum of its substantial parts.
And that was amplified in the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday at the Sprint Center when the Jayhawks were undone by eighth-seeded Texas Christian.
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Without suspended star freshman Josh Jackson, Kansas lost 85-82 after bungling a 12-point first-half lead, coming back from 11 down in the second half to retake the lead only to flub that in the final 2 minutes with a series of gaffes.
The defeat, just KU’s second in a Big 12 tourney opener in 21 tries, may or may not jeopardize Kansas’ presumed No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed and an accommodating path that would send it through Tulsa, Okla., the first weekend of the NCAAs and back into Kansas City for the regional.
But the game certainly served as a jarring reminder that at less than its best, Kansas can be had by a lesser team — in this case, one that it beat by 19 on Feb. 22.
It also spoke to the fact that this loss one way or another reflected the residue of a season of off-court episodes that coach Bill Self largely had been able to cordon off from results on the floor.
He has navigated the team to stay zoomed-in despite a swarm of self-inflicted troubles.
Those include a handful of minor incidents, another in which Carlton Bragg initially was charged with assault only to have that charge flipped to his female accuser and Jackson being charged with misdemeanor property damage to the car of a KU women’s basketball player.
The Jackson issue brought with it the appearance of injustice when KU did not suspend him for an act he later apologized for even as it did suspend the women’s basketball player, McKenzie Calvert, for throwing water on teammate Lagerald Vick earlier that evening.
So Jackson would not have been suspended for this game because of a Feb. 2 traffic incident, Self said, if not for the cumulative effect created by his previous trouble — for which Self has said he was immediately punished, while not specifying how.
“It’s a teaching moment,” Self said after the game. “Not only for me, but also for our guys to learn and hopefully be better from it.”
The lesson on the court, naturally, was that Kansas simply isn’t as good without Jackson, who the Jayhawks missed on both ends of the court and even just in terms of depth:
With five Kansas players playing 35 minutes or more, TCU outscored KU 34-3 off the bench.
While Self would say he expects others to just step up when one cog is out, it seemed clear by late in the first half that he wasn’t seeing what he’d hoped for.
Even as Kansas was moving toward a 37-27 lead with 4:19 left in the half, Self was less his typically animated persona than his agitated one.
His exasperation went from scathing words for Vick when he failed to box out to slamming down a loose ball when it came his way.
Self no doubt was all the more fired up at intermission after Kansas failed to make a field goal the rest of the half following TCU coach Jamie Dixon’s technical that helped prod the Frogs to a 16-3 end-of-half run.
The body language didn’t look much better in the second half as Kansas’ curious lapses in shot selection and defense left it behind by 12.
It all bubbled over when Self got a technical foul with 16:59 left — seconds after Dixon yelled “ ‘T’ him, ‘T’ him.”
Later, Dixon would say Self “got his money’s worth,” and even Self acknowledged the official “probably had to give me one” … though he made it a point to say he hadn’t cursed the ref.
All in all, it made for the rare game that Self himself seemed out of sorts.
“I think he was frustrated more just because of things that we could control: playing with energy, knowing the scouting report, mental situations … stuff that you have complete control over,” KU forward Landen Lucas said. “And when you don’t do that, especially in the postseason, that’s the thing that can come back and bite you the most.
“I think he was frustrated to see that, I think we all were … because we know this isn’t the time to have that happen.”
It showed up most at the end, after KU seemingly had secured the win after a jumper by Frank Mason (29 points) and a TCU miss gave Kansas the ball with an 80-76 lead and under 2 minutes to go.
But it all was frittered away after Mason miscommunicated with Vick on a lob to compel Self to put his hands to his face and give the ball back to TCU … Svi Mykhailiuk turned the ball over … Lucas missed a shot in the paint … and Mykhailiuk pounced on TCU’s Desmond Bane at the end of a three-point attempt with 2.5 seconds left.
Add it all up, and it’s a Kansas team with enormous potential but less margin for error than that might imply.
And, naturally, a different team without Jackson.
“We had who we had; it’s not an excuse of who we didn’t have,” Self said. “You have things happen all the time in the course of games or a season where negative things happen.
“You’ve got to respond favorably to that.”
Now, there’s one more thing for KU needs to find a way to respond well to — an unsightly loss in its last game before the NCAA Tournament.