LAWRENCE, Kan. — Mr. Fun frowned. Elijah Johnson put on his business face. Gone was the smile of a few minutes before, the giggles, the lightness. Gone was the relief, the joy of getting his shot back and wiping the floor with Texas, all in one fell swoop.
And all because of two words:
“I remember us thinking there wasn’t enough time left,” Kansas’ senior point guard said of the Jayhawks’ first meeting with the Cowboys, a stunning 85-80 Pokes victory on Feb. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse. “That’s what I remember.”
“Because we acted like we didn’t have enough time. That’s it.”
So with a trip to Stillwater up next, no thoughts of revenge? No internal discussions about paying ‘em back? First place on the line?
“Nope,” Johnson replied.
“We just got to do what we’ve got to do, man,” he continued.
“I don’t hunt on (any) certain person. We’re the big dog — not to say it like that. We don’t hunt on (anybody). We play Kansas ball. We do what Kansas do.”
They seek. They destroy. They pick the meat clean off the bone, then dive back for seconds. They’re like piranhas, only with better hang time.
“When you make shots, everybody looks good,” Longhorns coach Rick Barnes mused late Saturday night after his squad was smoked, 73-47. “I’ve always loved (Kansas coach) Bill (Self’s) teams, the way they’ve played. I think obviously, if you ask me, they’re as good as anybody in the country.”
Whatever the No. 14 Jayhawks lost two weeks ago — that aforementioned home setback to Oklahoma State started an uncharacteristic three-game losing slide and set off panicked looks across Lawrence — is back and humming again. Five days after atomizing a good Kansas State team at home, Kansas (21-4, 9-3) kicked the Longhorns around like they were an old can, setting up a first-place showdown with Oklahoma State (19-5, 9-3) on Wednesday in Stillwater.
“We’ll find out a lot more about ourselves Wednesday,” Self said of the Cowboys. “That’ll be as hard a game as we’ll have all year, going to Stillwater and winning.”
Saturday, by contrast, appeared to be one of the easiest, a snoozer that saw the wheat waving early. Texas got to within 15-9 at the 13:46 mark of the first half, then spent the next six minutes in a fetal position. The Jayhawks led 24-9. Then 26-11. Then 28-15. Then 35-17. Then 41-19. Then 49-28 …
“You can’t coach making shots,” offered Barnes, who’s had better nights. “Guys have to make it. You give a team like Kansas breathing room and they can be loose and free — they make shots. All the things we talked about that we wanted to do, we didn’t do.”
Namely, score. Texas (11-14, 3-9) managed five field goals in the first half, and seven in the second. They shot 21.8 percent from the floor and misfired on 19 of 21 attempts from beyond the arc.
But, hey, the Longhorns’ fancy black alternate uniforms looked interesting. Their basketball prowess, not so much.
“We will make some people’s lives difficult down the stretch,” Barnes said.
Absolutely. Barnes’ life, for starters.
Texas played the part of the softie you invite over for homecoming, the patsy, the easy mark. Which was apropos, as Saturday had a bit of a homecoming flavor, too; roughly a dozen former KU alums — from NBA veterans such as Nick Collison to more recent stars such as Thomas Robinson — were on hand to watch Mario Chalmers, the man whose clutch trey helped power the Jayhawks to a national title in 2008, get his number retired at The Phog.
“It’s definitely good to have them back, our old teammates and stuff,” noted KU center Jeff Withey, who collected 15 points and 11 rebounds. “It’s fun to perform for those guys.”
And it felt like everybody was getting into the act. Withey added two more blocks to his resume, becoming the Big 12’s all-time leader in career swats. Johnson seemed to regain his his mojo (12 points, four assists, one turnover), to say nothing of his confidence.
A short film of the players and coaches offering their interpretation of the viral video de rigueur — “The Harlem Shake” — was broadcast on the giant scoreboard above, further inciting the already rabid crowd. And, of course, there was Ben McLemore’s 360 slam off a break with 4:11 left, the best dunk north of NBA All-Star festivities in Houston.
“It’s huge,” Self said of the ‘fun’ part of the equation. “There’s not a team in America that has fun every time they go play at the same level, consistently. You go through ruts and you kind of lose your personality and things like that over the course of the season.”
The personality is back. The fun is back. Good thing, too, because Wednesday’s trip to Gallagher-Iba Arena has the potential to be a tone-setter, at worst, and a season-changer, at best.
The Cowboys have the most user-friendly schedule the rest of the way, including tilts at home with co-leaders Kansas and Kansas State (20-5, 9-3). The Jayhawks, by contrast, have to visit Ames and Waco after Stillwater — which could make things tricky if they would happen to fall a game back in the standings.
“We put ourselves in a tough position now, where there’s very little margin for error,” Self allowed. “But our guys really respond favorably when the stage is pretty bright, so I’m excited about it.”
Still, he knows the Cowboys will be, too. Back on Feb. 2, it was galling enough that Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart was the best point guard in the building. But then the super-frosh punctuated the upset with a celebratory backflip on the Allen Fieldhouse floor shortly after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“Was there a backflip?” Self asked reporters, coyly, trying hard to contain a smirk.
“That’s already been shown many times, I gotta be honest,” Self said. “I thought that was as athletic as Ben’s dunk.”
“Yeah, that’s a big deal,” Johnson countered. “Can’t do (anything) but tip your hat to him. He did it. Ain’t no one else (that) really did it.”
With that, Johnson frowned again. The big dog is coming. And the big dog is not amused.