Alexander is ‘on’ again for KU — and he’s too dang good to be riding pine, coach

KU's Cliff Alexander recorded his second double-double of the season (13 points, 13 boards) against Oklahoma and his first in Big 12 play. 

Denny Medley/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Cliff Alexander drifts. Dude switches off. Cliff admits as much. A switched-off Alexander is still probably 1.4 times as effective as, say, a switched-on Landen Lucas or Hunter Mickelson, but off is off.

And Bill Self is not a fan of off.

Bill Self hates off. Loves Cliff. Hates off. Off can get bent.

"It’s just the energy thing. All the stats (are) not really (anything)," Alexander, Kansas’ freshman power forward, said after his Jayhawks rallied late Monday night for a curious, spirited 85-78 win over No. 18 Oklahoma. "It’s just the energy thing. Me and (Self) both think I need to play with a high motor. I agree with him."

Alexander played only two minutes in the second half of an 86-81 loss at Iowa State this past weekend. This struck many as more than a little self-destructive, considering that a) Big No. 2 was, as he is most nights, the closest thing to a rim defender the smallish Jayhawks have on the roster, and b) Jamari Traylor, whose motor always goes even when his shot doesn’t, apparently has a bum hip and can’t move like he did earlier this month.

"He’s a great inside presence and that’s something that we need," teammate Brannen Greene said of Alexander, who recorded his second double-double of the season (13 points, 13 boards) and his first in Big 12 play for the 11th-ranked Jayhawks (15-3, 4-1 Big 12). "We lack size and he’s our leading shot-blocker. He gets in here and he brings aggressiveness, a physical presence, and that’s what we need."

They need the arms. With 3:28 left in the contest and Kelly Oubre at the free-throw line, the host Jayhawks down 71-70, the second foul shot rims out. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Alexander reaches up high with those giant mitts, like the claws on the end of a crane machine stuffed with toys, saves the carom, and kicks it out to point guard Frank Mason. Mason then shifts it to Greene at the top of the arc.

Swish. Insanity.

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They need the body, the one that takes the charge on the Sooners’ TaShawn Thomas some 27 seconds later, flipping possession back to the hosts. They need the hops. With two minutes left and the Jayhawks leading 75-74, Mason drives to the left of the lane, throwing his body and caution to the wind, drawing defenders and dropping the rock into the hands of a waiting Alexander, with nothing but paint in front of him.

Out comes the stuff. Bedlam.

"Let’s be honest," Self said. "I mean, Perry (Ellis) and Jamari are great, but they don’t give us a physical presence like Cliff potentially does.

"So we need that. We need it. It changes our team, regardless of who starts or what we do moving forward."

Big No. 2 needs to start. Period. Or if that’s a bridge too far, given his inexperience and the aforementioned "off" moments, he needs to be getting most of the minutes at the 5, or power 4, or however it’s designated on the dry-erase board. The Chicago native started the week converting 64.8 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Hoops-Math.com, and a put-back percentage of 77.8. This for a group that went into Monday night ranked 269th nationally in field-goal percentage at the tin (55.2), a roster that we’ve seen whiff on more bunnies than Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam combined.

Alexander is numero uno in Self’s stable in terms of blocks (25), field-goal percentage (.573) and rims bent (we’ve lost count), a natural closer, having drained five of six free-throw attempts in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime.  After Alexander’s retrieval of that free-throw miss, the Jayhawks closed the tilt on a 15-7 run.

"(Self) tells me every day I need to play with (a) motor," Alexander said. "Sometimes I show it, sometimes I don’t. But I’ve just got to keep it consistent."

Such is the path of most freshmen on the college stage: Up one week, down the next, trying to find the happy middle, the perfect median. Alexander’s 1.6 win shares, as tracked by Sports-Reference.com, ranked third on the KU roster as of Monday afternoon, and his win shares per 40 minutes ratio (WS/40) of .210 topped the roster, followed closely by fellow freshmen Devonte’ Graham (.205) and Oubre (.181).

Ellis, to be sure, is the more polished, poised, experienced forward, but it’s a quiet polish and poise. Big Cliff is the polar opposite. When he fails, he fails loudly. And when he succeeds, it brings the kind of sheer noise that shatters glass.

"We just need to say, ‘Screw up, that’s fine,’" Self said of Alexander. "’Screw up.’ Just make sure you do it at 100 miles per hour. That will make us a better team."

This is still a good team, but flawed good, schizophrenic to the extreme. After scorching nets over the first 20 minutes — nine for 13 from three in the opening period, tying a team record for treys in a half — the Jayhawks opened the second stanza by missing 10 of their first 11 shots and on the wrong end of a 21-3 Sooners run. Some 7:42 into the second half, a 51-32 lead had been whittled to 54-53. From the 10:58 mark to 4:05 left in the second period, the contest was tied three times, stunning the Phog faithful into an even deeper uncomfortable murmur.


Cue Cliff.

The "on" Cliff.

The focused Cliff.

After the game, Alexander was even spotted giving Self a playful pat on the backside, probably out of relief as much as anything else. Because if Monday night drove home any point — other than the fact the Big 12 will be Looney Tunes down the stretch — it’s that, whether at the rim or on the scoreboard, it’s not about how you start. It’s how you finish.

"I love Coach," Alexander said. "He coaches me every day, wants me to go harder, so that’s what I try to do for him."

Message delivered, then?

 "Yeah, yeah, it got through," Alexander said. "(It) most definitely got through."

Good thing, too. Because they need him. Now more than ever.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.