LAWRENCE, Kan. — All the stars were out, Andrew Wiggins notwithstanding. Throw in Gavin MacLeod and Charo, and Saturday’s Kansas-Oklahoma State game practically doubled as an episode of "The Love Boat."
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers watched from the Allen Fieldhouse stands in a nifty Kansas quarter-zip, palling around with Jayhawks football coach Charlie Weis and crossing one of the world’s best indoor venues off his personal winter bucket list. Former Kansas State great Mitch Richmond was here, too, scouting for the Sacramento Kings. Ditto Ronnie Lester, taking copious notes, mental or otherwise, for the Phoenix Suns. And Jesse Buss, son of late Los Angeles mogul Jerry Buss and currently scouting director with the Lakers.
"If you think about it, (with) Perry (Ellis), Wayne (Selden) and (Andrew) Wiggins, who would’ve thought we would win the game with those guys having off-days the way they did," Kansas coach Bill Self said after his Jayhawks outlasted the Cowboys, 80-78, to move to 4-0 in the Big 12 and 13-4 overall. "That means the other guys stepped up and played well."
Wiggins managed all of three points and was invisible in the second half. Selden scored nine but turned it over five times. Ellis whiffed on bunny after bunny and wound up with six points.
The Jayhawks won anyway. And if not for an ugly run of turnovers to start and finish the second half, they would have won comfortably.
"I don’t know of a team that’s more talented in the country," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford opined, "that’s as deep as they are."
On a good day (theirs, not yours), the Jayhawks can beat you about six different ways. Although their preferred method is still right over the head, with a tire iron: The Cowboys shot 39.4 percent from the floor, 30.8 percent in the first half, got outrebounded by four and had 11 of their attempts swatted to kingdom come. The supporting cast wasn’t too bad, either. Point guard Naadir Tharpe netted 21 points and was 3-for-4 on treys. The Bruise Brothers, the power forward tandem of Jamari Traylor and Tarik Black, combined for 17 points, five boards, two blocks and a dozen forearm shivers off the bench.
And with 22 NBA scouts in attendance, according to Jayhawk officials, America’s hottest future lottery pick, center Joel Embiid, wound up two blocks shy of a triple double: 13 points, 11 boards, eight swats. Oh, and one technical foul, his third in as many games.
"I was just trying to keep my cool, stay calm, always stay in the next play," the 7-foot native of Cameroon explained later. "Don’t do (anything stupid), don’t have (any) dumb fouls anymore."
"I mean, next game, I’ll do better," Embiid said.
All right, dude. You do that.
In the meantime, somebody in the Big 12 office might want to get their usual engravers on the line, just in case. Because after four games of KU’s five-tilt Bataan Death March to open league play — all against squads in the unofficial top 40 in terms of Ratings Percentage Index, all of ’em NCAA tourney contenders — the Jayhawks are a perfect 4-0, up at the top of the Big 12 heap by a half-game on Kansas State (4-1 Big 12), with unkind trips to Ames and Norman already out of the way.
"That’s like being ahead in baseball in the second inning," Self said. "It doesn’t matter right now."
Yeah, but your men are up 7-0 heading into the top of the third, coach. And sending a very, very loud message along the way:
You want the trophy? You’re going to have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.
"Definitely," said Tharpe, who’s averaging 16.3 points and 5.5 assists in league play. "I feel like we’re always sending a message that guys, even though we have a lot of young guys on the team, that they came and are ready to play and ready to defend the title that we have right now."
Or fight for it, if necessary. Which would explain the six technical fouls Saturday, combined, from both camps.
"Both teams were turned up pretty good today," Self said. "That’s a positive."
January has been, too.
"I think everybody understands," Tharpe said, "this is how Kansas basketball is supposed to be played."
Elbow bruises. Floor burns. No regrets. With 7:59 left in the first half, Traylor bumped Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown in front of the KU bench while celebrating a 13-0 Jayhawks run. That sent a slew of Cowboys players running over from their side of the court, which, in turn, brought another slew of Jayhawks off their bench. Baseball-style pushing and shoving followed as well and a mad scramble to preserve order. The end result was offsetting technicals, but there was the tone, right there.
It also officially put everyone a bit on edge, something exacerbated with 5:17 to go before the break. Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart fell in a heap under the baseline with Embiid landing on top of him. Selden went over to the pile, ostensibly to help the KU big man up, but ended up being shoved and staggered into the helpless Smart as he lay down. That led to two more free throws on both sides, but the cushion for the hosts remained at a healthy dozen.
With 15:22 to go in the contest, the Pokes’ Le’Bryan Nash got into a tangle with the taller Embiid, and the whistles flew fast and furious. Embiid appeared to push Nash out of his face, then pull away and left his arms high in innocence. Nash was still visibly heated — so much so, in fact, Smart reached over and attempted to cover his teammate’s mouth, on the floor, so the zebras couldn’t hear.
"(Embiid) was jawing the whole time," Smart said later.
Ergo, No. 21 got slapped with the technical; Oklahoma State’s Phil Forte went to the line for two free throws that cut the lead to 52-42, setting off a 14-7 run by the visitors. Brown returned the favor in a sideline tangle with Embiid at the 3:57 mark of the second half. The Pokes’ guard landed his second "T" of the day, and the two fouls shots by Tharpe pushed the hosts’ lead up to 75-64.
"This is an emotional game," Smart said. "You play it with your heart, your body, all that. It’s a passionate game."
A sloppy game, too, at times. The Jayhawks committed 19 turnovers, 15 of them in the second half after a Pokes bunch down 17 at the half cranked up its half-court trap. Oklahoma State closed the game on an 18-7 run and, over the final 20 minutes, netted 18 points off turnovers to KU’s five.
But last year in this meeting, in this setting, the Cowboys finished the deal, and Smart capped the day by doing a backflip on the court, much to the locals’ collective chagrin. Thanks to a desperation stop with five seconds left, this time the Jayhawks flipped the script. And even though it’s mid-January, we’re starting to get that old feeling again, the one that says we know exactly how this particular movie is going to end.