Bill Self pushed through a back hallway to the Kansas locker room in the Sprint Center late Friday night. Nearly 45 minutes after No. 10 Kansas’ 94-83 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals, Self was ready to move on.
It’s one-and-done time now for Kansas — the NCAA Tournament waiting as the ultimate judgment for a locker room full of young players. But first, as Self stepped toward a pack of waiting cameras, he noticed the Iowa State logo on the wall.
“I have to stand in front of this (darn) thing,” Self said wryly. “I’ve seen enough of Iowa State.”
For 40 minutes, the Cyclones had victimized Kansas with an offensive clinic that bordered on criminal. In the first half, it was a three-point barrage — Iowa State hit eight of 12. In the second half, it was a layup line. For the night, the Cyclones shot 54 percent, the second team in three games to eclipse 90 points against KU.
“That’s definitely unacceptable to give up that many points,” said sophomore Perry Ellis, who finished with a game-high 30 points. “That’s way too many.”
The Jayhawks have said these words a lot this year, more than any KU team of the Self era. And while this is a young team playing the toughest schedule in the country, this is still the first Kansas team since 2000 to lose nine games before the NCAA Tournament.
So as Self moved passed the Iowa State logo and positioned himself in front of a Jayhawk, he tried to explain the dreadful defensive effort.
Iowa State could be the best offensive team Kansas sees all year, Self said. Not many teams have post players (Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim) who can strike like this. But as Self continued, his answers kept filtering back to Joel Embiid, the 7-foot freshman center who missed his fourth straight game because of a stress fracture in his back.
“It’ll be more difficult if we don’t have Jo,” Self said. “When you take a guy out of the equation like Jo, defensively and offensively you can run everything through him, and then you play a team like Iowa State that was a lot for us to overcome tonight. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact.”
The statistics back Self’s point, of course. In two victories against Iowa State, Embiid had feasted inside. The Jayhawks had held Iowa State to just 39 percent shooting and held a plus-27 rebounding margin.
On Friday, as Embiid sat in a sweatsuit on the Kansas bench, Iowa State shot 54 percent and was outrebounded just 35-31.
No excuses. Just facts. The Jayhawks have the manpower make a deep run with Embiid on the bench, but the wrong matchup could be deadly.
“We definitely have to adjust,” Ellis said. “He would deflect a lot of the drives and contest a lot of those shots. So we have to really focus on keeping them out of the paint.”
For 40 minutes, Iowa State kept running ball screens at Kansas. If the Jayhawks switched, it usually meant a mismatch with a guard trying to stop Niang. Maybe a healthy Embiid could have provided some weakside help. Instead, Niang finished with 25 points and seven assists.
“He could have stopped Niang inside,” sophomore forward Jamari Traylor said of Embiid. “We definitely miss him a lot.”
If the impact of Embiid’s absence would have been confined to the defensive end, maybe Kansas could have traded offensive punches with Iowa State. But after Ellis dominated Iowa State for 21 points in the first half, helping Kansas take a 48-46 halftime lead, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg shaded an extra defender on Ellis.
“They didn’t guard the other big,” Self said. “It’s hard to get angles when you don’t guard the other big. That’s one thing about Jo. You can’t really do that.”
Freshman wing Andrew Wiggins, who was coming off 71 points in two games, finished with 22 points. But he needed 21 shots, and there was little offense at the other positions.
Now the Jayhawks must regroup for the NCAA Tournament, where they likely project as a No. 2 seed. Inside the Sprint Center, they had just taken part in a wildly entertaining game in front of an electric atmosphere. The first half was the highest scoring 20 minutes in Big 12 Tournament history. But this was the not the game they wanted to play. For years, Self’s teams were athletic enough to win track meets but would rather win a brawl.
“That’s what we take pride in,” Traylor said. “The team that went to the national championship game (in 2012), in games like this we ended up getting stops in a row at the end of the game.”
So now comes the pride factor. The Jayhawks are not whole without Embiid — “We need Jo to get back,” Self said — but that could be a while. Maybe the second weekend of the NCAA tourney. So for now, they must adjust.
“We’re capable of winning six straight, I believe in my team,” Wiggins said. “So we just have one more chance left.”