Sunday, March 2, 2008
Kansas avenges K-State loss and looks dominant again
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas coach Bill Self got his team together a week ago and told the players that the rut they were in was not bad for them at all. He said that it was good for them to deal with some adversity, to struggle to score, to not play with energy, to even be a bit selfish.
"Every team that wins in March goes through some sort of crap during the season," Self said as he walked back to his office.
The coach reflected on the Jayhawks avenging their first loss of the season by pounding Kansas State 88-74 Saturday night at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, easily the best, loudest and most energetic place to watch a game.
"We had a hall pass all year long until the last month," Self said. "We were 20-0, beating people bad, and on the road we were winning by double figures. We needed to have something bad to [happen to] have an identity, to find our toughness."
Self said the Jayhawks were one of the better teams in the country prior to losing to Kansas State on Jan. 30. But in February as the Jayhawks struggled to a 5-2 record, KU was "just an average team. I do think there were reasons for that, but they were all excuses."
Kansas' blemishes were exposed when the Jayhawks were overrun by the Wildcats in the first meeting. Self expected leadership to come out of the loss, but he said no one stepped up.
"Instead, everybody decided at once to basically look out for numero uno," Self said. "No one rallied around the adversity."
None of that was an issue on Saturday. Against Kansas State, the Jayhawks went right for the jugular from the opening tip. Kansas State's super freshman Michael Beasley picked up two fouls in the first 2:05 (he didn't pick up another the rest of the game). Bill Walker joined Beasley soon after with his second personal foul a few minutes later. Before long, the game was wide open with the Jayhawks up 23-9.
The Jayhawks could have pushed this game to 30, but Beasley had to get his points. He finished with 39 points.
"He gets you pumped up for the game," KU senior guard Russell Robinson said of Beasley. "He got his points. He's a great player, but we didn't let the other guys have a good game."
With the win, the Jayhawks looked dominant once again. Junior guard Brandon Rush said he's fine with the Jayhawks being a bit under the radar now, but he expects to be at the Final Four in San Antonio and contend for a title.
Junior Brandon Rush admits Kansas had a lot of discussions to figure out last month's funk.
But after that Jan. 30 loss to Kansas State, the Jayhawks beat Colorado, Missouri and Baylor, and then they went through a three-game funk. They lost at Texas, scoring just 69 points. They beat Colorado, but managed just 69 points again. They were completely flat at Oklahoma State in a 61-60 loss on Feb. 23.
There were team meetings, dinners and plenty of discussion about what ailed the Jayhawks in the four days between the Oklahoma State loss and a road game at Iowa State last Wednesday. KU beat the Cyclones by 11 in Ames.
Rush said the team discussed technical aspects like shooting, not defending the 3-point shot and rebounding. But ultimately, the problems weren't technical. They were all about Kansas' attitude. When the Jayhawks are the aggressor, amp up defensively and play with a purpose, they realize they can play with anybody in the country.
"We're running the same stuff [now as we did then]," Self said. "But the only difference with our team from three weeks ago to now is the intangibles, like energy. Look how many points we scored off offensive rebounds [20 second-chance points off 23 offensive rebounds]. Look how many deflections we got. Those are the things we weren't getting. We were duds before. We were stale."
Not any longer. But there is still more work to do before Selection Sunday on March 16. The Jayhawks' senior night is against Texas Tech on Monday (ESPN, 9 ET), and then they travel to Texas A&M on Saturday (4 ET) before the Big 12 tournament begins on March 13.
The Jayhawks got a bonus Saturday when Texas Tech upset Texas at home, a game that Self said the players didn't want to watch during pregame meal to keep focused on Kansas State. He said normally they would have spent energy cheering on the Red Raiders to beat Texas. Once Texas lost, though, that meant Kansas can win the Big 12 as both teams are tied at 11-3 with two games remaining. A No. 1 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament is also still viable.
Last season, Self said the Jayhawks stunk as they lost earlier in the season to DePaul and Oral Roberts. Ultimately the Jayhawks went to the Elite Eight, losing to UCLA in San Jose.
Kansas has apparently had its adversity now, with Big 12 losses to Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State on the road.
"Florida had to go through [adversity] last year to win the national championship," Self said. "Carolina has gone through it this season with injuries. Everybody that's really good in March has had to develop some type of team toughness. But we hadn't done that."
"If we keep this up," Rush said, "we can go [to the Final Four]."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.