LAWRENCE — Bill Self probably bit through the chalkboard in the Kansas locker room after Saturday’s totally unexpected 85-80 loss to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse.
But by the time he addressed the media, 30 minutes or so after OSU freshman Marcus Smart had done a couple of back flips on the court to celebrate, Self had regained his composure.
Most of it, at least.
He was asked about the disappearance of the defense that had been so instrumental in the Jayhawks winning 19 of their first 20 games. He was asked about how Smart, who is 6-foot-4 and built like a Mack truck, was able to bull through two KU block-outs to snare offensive rebounds and in the final couple of minutes to help the Pokes build their lead.
And he was asked about the performance of KU senior guard Elijah Johnson, who melted down in the second half with three of the worst turnovers imaginable, one on the Jayhawks’ final possession when they had a chance to tie the game.
Self isn’t used to being asked such questions and the reporters who cover Kansas aren’t used to asking them, especially at home. Saturday’s loss was Self’s eighth at Allen Fieldhouse in 10 seasons.
But as much as we’ve come to take Kansas wins at home for granted, the Jayhawks’ loss to OSU really isn’t that shocking.
First of all, the Cowboys are a good, if underachieving, team. And let’s be honest, KU has been over-ranked for a while now.
As I watched Markel Brown’s first-half shooting display and Smart take over in the second half, I wondered how OSU had lost five games.
The answer: Before Saturday, Oklahoma State had been abysmal on the road, 0-5.
To finally win one away from Stillwater, and to do it at Kansas of all places, was reason for, well, back flips.
“I had done them in high school after we won back-to-back state championships,” said Smart, who played at Marcus High in Flower Mound, Texas. “I just had so much energy and we were so excited and ecstatic about the victory, so it was just kind of second nature to do the flips.”
Oklahoma State came out firing behind junior guard Markel Brown, who had 22 first-half points.
And when he slowed down in the second half, Smart took over with 15 of his 25 points.
KU, which had been allowing 58.7 points per game, gave up 85. Oklahoma State pushed the Jayhawks around some, especially in the second half.
“They have great personnel,” Self said of the Cowboys (15-5, 5-3 Big 12). “Let’s face it, we haven’t played well in three weeks, or consistently well. And when you don’t play well, you’ve got to defend and rebound and we didn’t do either one of those worth a crap today. We got what we deserved. The better team won.”
Outside of redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, who led KU with 23 points, 11 of them in the first 6:34 of the second half, the Jayhawks had a do-over kind of game.
And on a team as offensively challenged as Kansas, it’s fair to wonder why McLemore doesn’t take on an even bigger role. Yes, he has taken more shots than any Jayhawk, but only about 10 per game. He did take 17 shots against Oklahoma State and made nine. He’s a 50-percent shooter from the field and a 45 percent shooter from the three-point line.
So why is Johnson, for instance, taking as many shots as he is? He’s below 40 percent now for the season and just a 33 percent three-point shooter.
It will be interesting to see how much more of a role McLemore has in the offense going forward. And how much less Johnson is involved.
It was telling Saturday when Self pulled Johnson late and replaced him with freshman Andrew White III, who hadn’t played previously. White proceeded to score six points in 39 seconds and nearly made the defensive play of the game in forcing an OSU turnover.
Johnson did return and even made a nice driving basket with 20 seconds left to pull the Jayhawks to within 81-80 with 20 seconds left.
“We should have been playing Andrew before,” Self said. “We were definitely needing something and we were definitely a better team today with (Johnson) sitting down and having somebody else in the game.’’
Kansas is a team without a true point guard, which makes what the Jayhawks have done this season that much more remarkable.
What they have done, though, is to play tenacious defense. Oklahoma State became only the fifth team this season to shoot 40 percent or better (43.3 for the Cowboys).
While Self was pointed in some of his remarks about Johnson, he made it clear the loss was a team thing.
“Elijah’s confidence probably got stung a little today,” Self said. “But it’s OK if you play bad once in a while. But as a group, when you’re getting your butt kicked and not fighting back, that’s what bothers me more than anything else.”
The Jayhawks, Self said, lost sight of who they are. Being who they are, a team so reliant on defense and rebounding, isn’t always fun. Up and down basketball is fun. Scoring is fun. Making shots is fun.
But losing isn’t.
“We have less of a margin for error than any team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Self said.
Kansas played outside of that margin Saturday and got whipped.