KU finds its mojo — has it found a PG, too?

LAWRENCE, Kan. — As they dressed up, he was busy dressing them down. The kid looked them in the eye — his teammates, his brothers — and scolded them. Of all the tricks Naadir Tharpe pulled out of his hat Monday night, that last one in the Kansas locker room might’ve been the most impressive of all.
“You know, everybody was real excited; everybody was excited, jumping around, dancing,” the Jayhawks’ sophomore point guard told FOX Sports after helping No. 14 Kansas crush No. 10 Kansas State, 83-62.  “But I told them, ‘Don’t get excited, because this is one game that we just played. We still have to go on the road to win games. And we still haven’t got what we needed yet.'”
And yet they also got exactly what they needed, where they needed it, when they needed it. After a three-game losing streak that had people breaking ankles in a mad rush to jump off the Kansas bandwagon, the Jayhawks got back to doing what they do best: Humiliating the Wildcats on the basketball court.
Never mind that this was Big-12-leading K-State, 19-5 K-State, feisty K-State, Top 10 K-State. Monday evening was ‘Turn Back The Clock Night’ at Allen Fieldhouse, with the December 2012 version of Kansas (crisp, confident, nasty) running mad circles around the December 2012 version of the Wildcats (sloppy, tentative, passive).
A game that should’ve been close got ugly in a hurry — Tharpe’s jumper with 9:20 left in the first half gave KU a 23-10 cushion — and stayed there the rest of the way. If there was a 50-50 ball on the floor or in the air, there was a 90-10 chance the Jayhawks were going to snare it and start a fast break the other way.
The hosts outrebounded the Wildcats, 41-23. Kansas won on second-chance points, 19-2. The Jayhawks won on points in the paint, 34-16, and on points off of turnovers, 19-11. Blood was spilled, egos were bruised, and The Ghosts Of Phog Past laughed all the way home.
“That’s the difference in the game, and it was the difference for us (in a win over) Iowa State on Saturday,” said K-State coach Bruce Weber, whose Wildcats now are a staggering 3-46 over their last 49 meetings with Kansas.
“I thought they got us strung out, they got us in transition. We allowed way too many layups and we just broke down defensively, which we had been pretty good at.”
K-State ran into the wrong team in the wrong town at the wrong time, drawing a cold, angry bunch of Jayhawks (20-4) who were overdue for a breakout, especially in their own backyard. Over the previous nine days, Kansas got out-toughed at home by Oklahoma State; out-scrapped on the road by Oklahoma; and, in between, found a way — scientists will be scratching their heads for decades trying to figure this last one out — to lose at 10-14 TCU.
“Last week was a bad week for us,” said senior center Jeff Withey, now the Jayhawks’ all-time leader in blocked shots (363) after swatting away five more Monday night. “We can’t ever let that happen again.”
But it did happen, of course, so there’s now a tie atop the Big 12 standings — the Jayhawks and Wildcats each share the crown at 8-3, with Oklahoma State lurking a half-game back (7-3), followed by Oklahoma (7-4), Iowa State (6-4) and Baylor (6-4).
If the Jayhawks had dropped this one, they’d have slipped two games behind the Wildcats, with road trips to Ames, Waco and Stillwater still left on the menu — none of them joyrides.
So Monday gave us Kansas, cast as the hunter. Kansas, which had the most to lose. Kansas, with its collective backs pressed against the wall.
“I felt like we deserved this (Monday night),” Jayhawk guard Elijah Johnson quipped. “I felt like we went out and took it, though — we didn’t wait for anybody to give it to us. And we’ve got something to build off of now.”
Unfortunately, they’ve also still got a problem at the point. Star wing man Ben McLemore, celebrating a birthday Monday, dropped 30 points on the Wildcats, and the Kansas bigs — Withey had 17, power forward Kevin Young had 13 — covered up for a lot of their teammates’ rare sins.
But the fact remains: This offense looked better, McLemore looked better, with Tharpe, the 5-foot-11 ballhandler, running the show. The New Englander finished with eight assists against only one turnover, and while his shooting (3-of-9) was almost as spotty as Elijah’s (1-for-6), he played solid defense on K-State standout Rodney McGruder, was aggressive getting to the paint, driving, kicking, and setting up good looks for McLemore, the best pure shooter on the roster.
“Coach (Bill Self) has gotten on us about getting to the paint a lot,” said Tharpe, who notched seven points in 27 minutes. “I know (McLemore) know what I want to do and I know what he wants to do … I know he likes to play the ‘2′ (guard), so I try to move him off the ball as much as I can.”
As for Johnson, well …
“I don’t have a problem with it,” the senior replied. “So if Naadir is doing that at the ‘1,’ or if I need to go to the ‘1′ — (Monday), when he got a little winded, and you saw I came back and got the ‘1′ — I’m willing to do that. Whatever we’ve got to do to win, man, I don’t care what it is. I really don’t care what it is.”
Even if that means playing the off-guard?
“I don’t care what it is. I’ll play the ‘2.’ I don’t care what it is. Whatever we’ve got to do to win, I’m down for it.”
Which is good, because despite the lopsided score and all those Kansas fans backing away from the ledge, the Big 12 title doesn’t run through Lawrence. Not yet, anyway. Technically, it runs through Stillwater.
Of all the teams in the Big 12’s high-rent district, it’s the Cowboys (17-5, 7-3) who have arguably the kindest final kick, with three of their four tilts against the rest of the contenders at home. KU’s last lap, on paper, is trickier, thanks to those aforementioned treks to Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor. If the Jayhawks claw their way back to a ninth straight Big 12 title, they’ll have to do it the hard way.
“We should be happy, because we’re definitely changed from (the last) three days,” Tharpe said. “But it’s a new week. That’s what I told them: ‘It’s a new week and we need to keep going off of this, feed off of this.'”
Besides, you can’t win two in a row without getting one first. As resets go, Monday night didn’t salve every old wound along Naismith Drive. But it’s stopped the bleeding, at the least.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler

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