The Kansas Jayhawks wear the Greek masks of college basketball, smiling comedy and frowning tragedy. In the same game.
They are nearly perfect and mysteriously average, between opening tip and final buzzer.
Earlier this season, Kansas had led one team by 21 and fell behind. They trailed another by 18 and came all the way back.
So, why not a game like Monday’s 85-78 victory over Oklahoma?
For a half, the Jayhawks were spectacular, almost dreamlike. They hit their first eight three-pointers, with the eighth one bouncing high off the back rim and dropping through.
The lead swelled to 20 over a terrific Sooners team that can score with anybody.
“As well as we played all season,” KU coach Bill Self said.
Fewer than 10 minutes into the second half, it was gone. All of it. Incredibly, Oklahoma caught up and would claim a four-point lead.
But the smiling mask returned. Kansas dug deep for its best defense of the night, trapping, recovering and making Oklahoma work much harder for shots than it did in closing the gap.
There’s one takeaway for Kansas. The Jayhawks can play ferocious defense. But why did it take blowing a three-touchdown lead after halftime to show their fangs?
Perhaps Kansas cannot stand prosperity. Or they’re a young team subject to wild mood swings. Plus, as Self said, Kansas “isn’t a great execution team.”
It’s that, plus this: Kansas doesn’t have somebody who puts the team on his shoulders. Not yet, consistently. Maybe Kelly Oubre can become that player, and he flashed some hustle and guts Monday, mostly at the beginning and the end of the game.
Point guard Frank Mason made critical shots down the stretch. Cliff Alexander came out of Self’s doghouse and collected the game’s biggest rebound, off Oubre’s missed free throw. Alexander got the ball to Brannen Greene, who swished a three-pointer for a 73-71 lead with 3:24 remaining and Kansas didn’t trail again.
On a team without a likely lottery pick, Kansas is a collection of high energy talent that when dialed in can open a 20-point lead on Oklahoma, or a 21-point lead on Utah.
When they’re not, they can disappear and fall behind Florida by 18 or let the Sooners and Utes front them.
But this team knows how to execute down the stretch.
Self separated the earlier outcomes from this one. The overall effort was better against the Sooners, who caught fire in their comeback.
In the end, Kansas has found a way on most occasions this season. Their comeback against Iowa State on Saturday fell short, and that was the only loss in three that was undecided in the final minutes.
Most of the big victories are edge-of-the-seat drama.
On the opposite sideline was a familiar face who has walked out of the building a winner. Lon Kruger is one of two active coaches who have won more than one game in Allen Fieldhouse. At Kansas State, his Wildcats ended the Jayhawks’ 55-game home floor winning streak behind Mitch Richmond. K-State won in Lawrence the next year as well, Roy Williams’ first season on the KU sideline.
Kruger sat calmly on the Sooners’ bench, next to top assistant and leading guard on those K-State teams, Steve Henson. They were crushed as things fell apart in the final minutes, losing a chance for Oklahoma’s first win in Lawrence since 1993.
Kansas’ big start was no stunning development. The loss in Ames 48 hours earlier had been troubling, not because the Jayhawks had suffered their first Big 12 defeat. Iowa State could win the league, and Hilton Coliseum is a madhouse. Even with all pistons firing, Kansas could have walked out bruised.
What set off the alarms were the details, or how little Kansas players paid attention to them, especially on defense.
Not retreating fast enough in transition defense as the Cyclones flew down the floor, bad positioning, bad energy. Alexander bore the brunt of Self’s anger but nobody left unscathed.
On Sunday, Self showed Alexander film of former All-America Thomas Robinson, one of the program’s great energy big men. Whatever was gleaned worked. Alexander had 13 points and 13 rebounds on Monday.
Others were similarly revved. Before the game was four minutes old, Oubre had knocked in three-pointers on successive possessions and had come with two steals. One was the type of play that pleases Self as much as any basketball play.
Oubre knocked the ball from Isaiah Cousins, but Cousins had a lead on the retrieval. Oubre dived and got his long arms on the ball, knocking it well into the backcourt. Again, Cousins had a lead on Oubre, and again, Oubre dived and smacked the ball out of bounds off Cousins.
The cork came off the building, and the Jayhawks fed off the frenzy. Seventeen straight points later, the Jayhawks had a 20-point lead.
They were off and ready to hide, but that’s not how it works this season. Twenty point leads can be danger zones for Kansas. But in the end, most of the time, the Jayhawks wear the smiling mask.
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BlairKerkhoff.