Nothing’s been easy for KU — and thanks to Iowa State, winning the Big 12 won’t be either
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Some 700 miles away, Iowa State was putting the sleeper hold on another underachieving Rick Barnes team in another underachieving Rick Barnes season, the real Big 12 challenger (the Cyclones) sending the paper challenger (the Longhorns) to bed.
"Come on, Texas," an elderly gentleman said as he saw the game on the hi-def television inside the media workroom at Allen Fieldhouse, about an hour before No. 8 Kansas was expected to give Texas Christian the usual woodshed treatment on Naismith Drive.
The man looked at the score on the screen. Then he shook his head and sighed.
A few minutes later, another body slumped down to watch the end of the Iowa State-Texas game.
Before long, another sigh.
"Well," the voice boomed from the back of the room. "We’ve got a race now."
Do they ever. The Jayhawks (22-5, 11-3 Big 12) got the presumed victory over the Horned Frogs, 81-72, maintaining their one-game lead in the league standings on the Cyclones (20-6, 10-4) and a game-and-a-half lead on Oklahoma (19-8, 10-5).
But, in point of fact, it was neither pretty nor easy. Then again, with this KU team, few things generally are.
Junior forward Perry Ellis and freshman reserve guard Devonte’ Graham combined for 43 points, 10 rebounds and 16 makes in 17 tries. Which was good.
Take their respective stat lines out, though, and the rest of the Jayhawks managed to score 38 points, shoot 12 of 31 (.387) from the floor and two of eight (.250) from beyond the 3-point arc.
Which was not.
"We had some starters not really produce," coach Bill Self noted matter-of-factly. "And when you have three starters combine for seven points, we needed our bench to be good. Certainly, Devonte’ was good, and I thought Brannen Greene played well, also. But we don’t win the game without Devonte’."
And even with Devonte’, the train didn’t pull away until late. Point guard Frank Mason got a restless Fieldhouse crowd up on its feet with a lob to Ellis with 6:47 to go. Ellis went all Blake Griffin, rising and grabbing the rock with his right hand, slamming it down as he was fouled in midair, pushing the lead to 64-50.
With the Phog back into a frenzy, Ellis then stole the TCU feed at midcourt, racing the other way for a thunderous slam that shot the margin to 66-52, pouring cold water on the sleeping giant.
"Obviously, they’ll run out on you in the blink of an eye, and you’ll be down 10 to 15 in the blink of an eye," TCU coach Trent Johnson said. "So I thought we responded pretty well (after that)."
The memo said the Frogs (16-11, 3-11) were supposed to slip quietly into the cold, good night after that. But scrappy TCU went off-script, dusting off the pride and stringing together a 10-2 run of its own, a Trey Zeigler free throw capping a three-point play that pulled the purple to within 68-62 with 3:50 left in the contest.
Because nothing comes easy, does it?
This after a choppy first half that saw nine ties, which got the home folks twitchy, and seven lead changes, which got them irate. The hosts’ 10 turnovers through the first 20 minutes didn’t help the collective blood pressure, either. The Jayhawks have continued to show, for the most part, a remarkable capacity — the Great Kentucky Massacre being the exception — to raise their level of play to match the opposition. Or, conversely, let it sink the way a wingnut does in a warm bath.
Saturday was a wingnut kind of game, with the volume of talent and the Ghosts of the Phog again pulling the sled across the finish line. More often than not — West Virginia providing another exception of note — this Self team somehow finds a way to do just enough.
Of course, just enough may not be enough to see the season’s baseline prize — an 11th straight Big 12 title — through to the end. A loss in Morgantown is forgivable and understandable, but it also dared the 14th-ranked Cyclones to claw their way back into this conversation, if they could do it the hard way.
Which they did.
An inconsistent road ensemble for most of the year, Iowa State over the past six days simply went to No. 22 Oklahoma State (17-10, 7-8) and Texas (17-10, 6-8) and won out — not only keeping pace during a week postulated to open up a little breathing space for Team Self, but even working to close the gap instead.
"With the stakes high," Self said, "(Iowa State) had probably the best week anybody has had all year long in our league."
And the easiest closing kick, at least in terms of the teams left on Fred Hoiberg’s dance card. Iowa State’s last four opponents have a combined winning percentage of .618. Oklahoma: .703; KU: .642.
The Cyclones made their statement. It’s the Jayhawks’ turn to respond, a throne in the balance.
"(Winning the league is) real meaningful," KU forward Jamari Traylor said. "Because every guy, all that tradition, everything — you just don’t want to be the guy that ends the streak. You don’t want to be on that team. As far as that goes, that’s the most important thing. I want to win (another title), but at the same time, I don’t want to lose; I think (that) is even worse."
And now the Sunflower Showdown rematch beckons in prime time. Kansas State (13-15, 6-9) spent the week circling several drains with a big red marker, barely registering a pulse in Fort Worth (a 69-55 setback to TCU), and hardly a breath in Waco (a 69-42 loss to No. 20 Baylor). The Wildcats are a wounded animal, but the conjecture for the moment is whether those wounds make it a more dangerous one … or walking roadkill.
"They had a bad week, but they’re still a good team," Traylor said of the EMAW crew. "They’re real tough and everything, and it’s definitely a tough place to win when we go to K-State; they’ve got a great crowd."
Again, with this bunch, nothing comes easy. Why would Monday be any different?