Maybe Kansas needed this. The losses. The doubters. The lessons.
That’s what they have to believe, anyway — that the first three-game losing streak in eight years prepared them for nights like this.
On Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, with its season on the brink, the Kansas Jayhawks answered a week of naysayers and question marks with a complete dismantling of Kansas State.
After an eight-day tumble, the Jayhawks regained their swagger and slapped the in-state rival Wildcats with an 83-62 whipping.
“When you get humbled like that,” Kansas senior Jeff Withey said, “every game matters more.”
You know, it wasn’t supposed to be like this — and certainly not this easy. Kansas had been on a run of mediocre basketball that had allowed in-state rival Kansas State to take a one-game lead in the Big 12 standings.
On Monday morning, K-State rose up to No. 10 in The Associated Press poll, while the Jayhawks dropped to No. 14.
That made this night the first time KU had played K-State as the lower-ranked team since the Midwest Regional final in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. Maybe it was good karma, then, that former Kansas star Danny Manning was back in Allen Fieldhouse on Monday.
By late Monday night, Kansas, 20-4 and 8-3 in the Big 12, was back in first place, tied with Kansas State 19-5 and 8-3, atop the Big 12 standings. In Jayhawks land at least, KU had restored order.
“We’re definitely a first-place team,” Withey said. “We see ourselves as one of the best teams in the nation, and that’s not gonna change. We lost three in a row, but we’re gonna spin that into a positive.”
This, of course, is Kansas this season. In moments this year, the Jayhawks have looked like a Final Four contender, the bullies of the Big 12. For the last week or so, they looked mortal, even a little weak. They dropped a game at Allen Fieldhouse. They laid an egg at TCU. They just got beat at Oklahoma.
“We just weren’t tough enough,” KU coach Bill Self said. “I think we’d gotten spoiled just like everybody around here does, that this won’t happen to us. And we just sat there and took it and allowed it to happen.”
On Monday night, Self wanted to diffuse some of the “sky-is-falling” rhetoric that had surrounded his team for the previous week. Self joked that he knew losing three in a row was not forgivable in a place like Lawrence, but he wanted his team to know that it didn’t mean they couldn’t be what they’ve always wanted to be.
“The whole mind-set was, let’s get ready to beat K-State,” Self said. “ … I bet there’s fans that worry more about certain things. And these kids, they leave here and it hurts, but they still get to go see their girlfriend, or they still get to go out and eat dinner with their family.”
On Monday, it was freshmen Ben McLemore who was celebrating some of that family time. He turned 20 on Monday, and after celebrating with his family on Sunday night, he finished with 30 points and seven rebounds while knocking down six threes.
“He got in a rhythm,” Self said. “… He attacked the goal better. He handled the ball better. He did a lot of things better tonight.”
McLemore’s teammates call him “Young Sav” — short for savage — and the name, of course, comes packed with a little bit of humor. McLemore can be a savage, they say, the most ruthless player on the court. But in those other moments, when McLemore is smiling and deferring, and being the people-pleasing little bro, it can be hard to imagine him as “Young Sav”.
On this night, the savage came out.
The Jayhawks also got a key spark from sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe, who finished with seven points and eight assists, looking like the point guard that the Jayhawks have so badly needed during their three-game skid.
And when McLemore is playing like this, and Tharpe is playing like a wiz-kid point guard, and the Jayhawks are playing their usual brand of stifling defense, the 16,300 fans at Allen Fieldhouse can breathe a long cathartic sigh of relief and celebrate a night with a different kind of chant:
“This is our state, this is our state.”
“The Fieldhouse,” Withey said. “There’s nothing like it, that’s for sure.”
Maybe it’s not
about the building. But it’s hard to imagine a better prescription for a haggard bunch than a night inside the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. For the 46th time in 49 games, the Jayhawks came away winners in the Sunflower Showdown.
“We needed to have a knot put on our head, in large part just to get us tougher,” Self said. “And, of course, it hurt us with our league chances without question, because we have a tough road ahead of us. But I think it will help our team down the road, which is obviously the most important.”