LAWRENCE — It’s easy to focus on the back flip — Marcus Smart’s triumphant tumble across Naismith Court — and forget about what came before, a feat with an even larger degree of difficulty.
Smart, a freshman point guard at Oklahoma State, came into Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 2 and finished with 25 points and eight offensive rebounds, leading the Cowboys to an 85-80 shocker over Kansas, the eight-time reigning champs.
“They just whipped us physically on the glass,” KU coach Bill Self said.
When the victory was secure, and Allen Fieldhouse had gone silent, Smart broke off a victory flip that would have merited few deductions from the Eastern bloc judges. And for the second time in 104 games, Kansas had been chopped down at home, a loss that would spur a three-game losing streak.
Still, it’s the back flip that the Jayhawks will remember, the image seared into their heads as they make the return trip to Oklahoma State for an 8 p.m. battle at Gallagher-Iba Arena on Wednesday night.
“If we go and get a victory there,” Kansas senior Travis Releford said, “you won’t see us doing back flips or flips on their court. We’re just gonna walk out in style.”
If Wednesday’s game were simply about pride, Kansas would have plenty of fuel. The Jayhawks haven’t been swept in conference play since 2001, when Iowa State pulled it off, and how often must the Jayhawks go on the road to avenge a loss at Allen Fieldhouse?
But this trip to Gallagher-Iba means more than all that. No. 9 Kansas (21-4, 9-3 Big 12) is tied with No. 14 Oklahoma State (19-5, 9-3) a half-game back of Kansas Sate, which beat West Virginia on Monday night. If the Jayhawks have visions of a ninth straight Big 12 title, those dreams could die a Cowboy death in Stillwater, where Self once went to school.
“They wanted it more than us when they came in our house,” Releford said, “and that’s unacceptable. So we just gotta come ready to play from the jump.”
If pride and conference trophies weren’t enough, the winner of tonight’s game could also have the inside track for individual postseason honors. Smart and KU freshman Ben McLemore are both in the Big 12 player-of-the-year hunt, and the trump card may fall to the program that finishes in first.
“Two of the best freshmen in the country,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “That’s not even an argument. Two of the top five freshmen in the country.”
Smart is averaging 15 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 41.8 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent from three-point range. McLemore, meanwhile, is in the midst of a freshman season that hasn’t been duplicated in more than 10 years. He’s shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 85 percent from the free-throw line — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by a freshman in a BCS conference in the last decade.
“(He) just makes it all so easy,” Ford said of McLemore. “I like his game. He doesn’t complicate it; love the pace of his game, gets his shot off, runs the court.…
“(There’s) just not a lot of wasted movement with him. (He) makes the game look easy. I think he’s a special ballplayer.”
McLemore finished with 23 points in the first game against Oklahoma State, but it was Smart who was making the game-changing plays down the stretch. Smart had two key offensive rebounds, while the Cowboys’ erased a four-point KU lead in the final minutes.
“Even though the game was in the past,” sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe said. “it was one of those (losses) that stuck with us for a while. And we’ve still been thinking about it. Everybody has that loss on their shoulders, and we just want to get it off.”
The opportunity is here. Kansas has rallied from its three-game slide and won its last two games by more than 20 points. On Tuesday, Self said he’s still not quite sure if that was his team that lost to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse. That team struggled to guard ball screens and played without the necessarily energy to beat another good team. Those were his players on the court, of course, but the Jayhawks didn’t play like themselves.
“We’re still the same team,” Self said. “We just had a bad day.”
Down in Stillwater, that day is still remembered for Smart’s impromptu flip, a move that instantly became a piece of Oklahoma State lore. The question, now, is whether Kansas can flip the script.
“The first game wasn’t what we expected, or what it turned out to be for us,” Tharpe said. “That’s the good thing of Big 12 basketball. We get another chance to play the team again.”