Sam Mellinger

Kansas lost to K-State ... and it’s time to talk about the streak

Bill Self on the Jayhawks loss at K-State

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self talks about the 74-67 loss to the Kansas State Wildcats on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, and the outlook for the Big 12 Conference race.
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Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self talks about the 74-67 loss to the Kansas State Wildcats on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, and the outlook for the Big 12 Conference race.

The court was left a mess of confetti and streamers, the moment captured with a thousand selfies after Kansas State’s first win over Kansas in nearly four years.

K-State doesn’t win this rivalry game often, but here’s something even rarer — KSU winning as a favorite, and as the Big 12 frontrunner, the reaction from many being: Why storm the court after beating THIS KU team?

Strange days, and K-State’s 74-67 win — forever memorialized with Cartier Diarra’s amazing windmill dunk — has created the strangest of Big 12 basketball realities.

K-State is now alone in first place at 7-2; Kansas is two games back and tied for — pauses to doublecheck, because this doesn’t sound right — fourth place.

Debate about whether KU’s chokehold on the league championship is about to end is a Midwestern tradition unlike any other. But college basketball’s most amazing run — 14 straight titles — has perhaps never been at greater risk.

“I feel like I should be Jim Mora right now in my talk,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Because we shouldn’t even be concerned about a damn race right now.”

Mora’s iconic rant — “Playoffs? Don’t talk about ... playoffs?!? You kidding me? Playoffs?!? came in 2001, which is notable because it’s one of the few things we have in sports that’s older than KU’s control of Big 12 basketball.

Kansas has lost four of its last six games, and is now 6-4 in the Big 12. The last time the Jayhawks’ league record was this unimpressive this late in the season was three years before their current league existed.

The problem with this KU team ... well, who are we kidding? There is way more than just one problem with this KU team. A quick and incomplete rundown:

They’re not tough, they can’t win on the road, they’re consistently soft at the end of games, they’re not a good shooting team, Lagerald Vick is making a run at Brannen Greene as Self’s least favorite player, Quentin Grimes has not developed, Udoka Azubuike is out for the year and Silvio De Sousa is on a two-year NCAA suspension.

In the interest of fairness, we present these positives: Self’s experience, Dedric Lawson’s offense, Devon Dotson’s development, Ochai Agbaji and the expected return of Marcus Garrett.

Do the math. The rest of this league race will be tilted against the Jayhawks.

“We ain’t even worried about that,” Lawson said of the streak. “We’re just worried about getting better. We’re just worried about winning the game on Saturday.”

K-State fans and players celebrate on the court after the Wildcats defeated KU 74-67 in Manhattan Tuesday night.

And, actually, that game on Saturday is one more positive. It’s against Oklahoma State, at home, which is the closest thing in this league to a layup — unless you’d argue for West Virginia at home, which is another game KU has left on its schedule.

The games KU has left are generally easier than those behind. The Jayhawks still must play at Texas Tech, which might be the only game in which they won’t be favored.

Self and Lawson are right. They shouldn’t be thinking about the league title. There are too many obstacles between here and there. But that’s how they’ll be judged. So let’s talk about how that might still happen.

Self has to fix the Vick problem. He played just 19 minutes Tuesday night and was benched for most of the first half after a string of defensive breakdowns. Kansas was 23 points worse than K-State with Vick on the floor, and 16 points better with him on the bench.

He is KU’s best — only? — three-point shooter, so benching him doesn’t seem viable, but he’s already come off the bench in favor of a guy Self was originally redshirting. So if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, Self may not have a choice.

Kansas needs points. Self said the offensive execution against KSU “can’t be worse,” and it was bad but not an outlier. This was particularly notable because the Jayhawks played perhaps their best game of the season last week against Tech.

Lawson played more on the perimeter, which is a better fit for his strengths, and open on the rest of the floor. But there was no sequel. Was the Tech game a fluke? Dotson needs to be part of the transformation, too, and KU needs more production from Grimes or Vick.

The last point we’ll mention here is that KU needs to find some measure of toughness. Self hit on this repeatedly after Tuesday’s game, and when asked he emphasized he meant mental and physical strength. KU has still been KU at home but has morphed into something much worse on the road — 1-6 in true road games.

That speaks to composure, leadership and experience. It also speaks to talent, because this group knows it doesn’t have much margin for error.

This one is on Self, and not just because of his $50 million contract. He put this group together, and even as it’s not the team he envisioned — they’d be seven magnitudes tougher with Azubuike and De Sousa — it’s the one he has.

Other than Vick — and KU isn’t getting leadership there — Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot are only KU rotation players who’ve played through a season with Self. Lawson is the team’s best player, but he’s naturally soft-spoken. Dotson might be the Jayhawks’ best natural leader, but he’s also a freshman.

“Are we in a great position to win the league?” Self said. “No. Do we deserve to be in a great position? Absolutely not. Can we flip the switch? Remains to be seen.”

That’s true, but incomplete: What remains to be seen is whether Self can be the one to flip that switch, because the alternative is the greatest regular-season conference title streak in college basketball history dies in a year without an obviously superior competitor.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.