LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Moments before their teams tipped off at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday, Ohio State’s Thad Matta and Kansas’ Bill Self met in front of the scorer's table and shook hands.
“Merry Christmas,” Matta told his counterpart, who then looked toward the Buckeyes bench and saw national-player-of-the-year candidate Jared Sullinger in street clothes.
Just like that, the Jayhawks found themselves in a prickly situation. As much pride as they would’ve taken in beating the Buckeyes with Sullinger in the lineup, losing with him on the bench would’ve been considered a mammoth disappointment. Especially at home, where Kansas has won 80 of its past 81 games.
“No one,” guard Elijah Johnson said, “comes into the Fieldhouse and beats us.”
And that includes No. 2 Ohio State, which couldn’t overcome the absence of Sullinger and the roar of the home crowd in Saturday’s 78-67 setback against No. 13 Kansas. Thomas Robinson scored 21 points and Tyshawn Taylor added a career-high 13 assists for the Jayhawks, who improved to 7-2.
“Don’t put an asterisk next to this,” Self said. “We’re not going to apologize for winning this one in any way, shape or form. Without [Sullinger], they’re a top-five team. With him, they’re a top-two team. They’re that good.”
Self may have been stretching it a bit, although his point was well taken. The Miami Heat, for example, might not be NBA title contenders without LeBron James. But they’d still be pretty salty with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
That was the situation Saturday with Ohio State, which touts one of the country’s top point guards in Aaron Craft, along with a future NBA shooting guard in William Buford. Mix in emerging power forward Deshaun Thomas (19 points) and the Buckeyes had more than enough pieces to beat Kansas on its home court.
But they didn’t.
So while it’s wise to keep the Jayhawks’ victory in perspective and not overplay it, it shouldn’t be minimized, either.
“Give Kansas all the credit,” Craft said. “We continued to fight back today, being down by 10 or 11 two or three times during the game. Kansas is a great team and they made us play for our mistakes.”
It may be too early to label the Jayhawks “great.” But they’re certainly further along than most people expected after losing most of the key players from last season’s 35-3 squad.
Perhaps a grueling schedule has helped. Kansas has now played three top-10 teams (Kentucky, Ohio State and Duke) along with No. 21 Georgetown and an underrated Long Beach State team.
“That’s a lot by Dec. 10,” Self said.
Robinson said it will pay off for a team hoping to win its eighth consecutive conference title.
“I feel like we’re ready, man,” Robinson said. “We’ve been put in tough situations. We’ve seen enough good teams. We’ve seen the up-and-down of it, the win-loss part of it. I’m really proud of my team right now, but we’re still nowhere near our peak.”
At times, the Jayhawks looked as if they were nearing that point Saturday. KU shot 58.2 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from 3-point range. When Johnson and Travis Releford weren’t knocking down open looks from the outside, Robinson was muscling up for some power baskets down low.
The biggest difference in this one was Kevin Young, a seldom-used Loyola Marymount transfer who entered the contest averaging 3.9 points. Young scored a season-high 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and came up with a huge steal down the stretch.
“[Young] deserves the game ball today,” said Matta, whose team shot just 38.7 percent against KU's pesky defense.
Kansas led by as many as 11 points in the second half before Ohio State narrowed the deficit to four (62-58) with 5:37 remaining. The Jayhawks responded with a 9-3 scoring run to put the game out of reach.
Watching it all from the bench was Sullinger, who was averaging 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds when he began experiencing back spasms last week. Sullinger’s teammates said they assumed he wouldn’t play against the Jayhawks, but Matta held out hope all the way until Saturday morning.
He said driving up to Allen Fieldhouse and seeing students standing outside waiting to get in the building got Sullinger’s juices flowing.
“This is what gets him rolling,” Matta said. “He was trying as hard as he could to convince us [to let him play]. But in this profession, I’m looking out for my players’ best interest and I’m looking out for our program’s best interest. I’m never going to jeopardize one of my players’ futures.”
With Sullinger out of the lineup, Thomas and Buford played all 40 minutes Saturday. Fatigue was clearly a problem down the stretch for Thomas, who scored just four of his 19 points after intermission.
“I was excited to go against him,” Robinson said of Sullinger. “But what it all comes down to is Kansas versus Ohio State. It’s not about Thomas Robinson versus Jared Sullinger. I know it would’ve been fun for everyone to watch, but it came down to my team versus their team.”