The new Kansas is sprawled out in a Sprint Center locker room, exhausted and jubilant after an overtime victory. The new Kansas is Brannen Greene munching on potato chips, and Jamari Traylor cracking jokes, and Wayne Selden Jr. stone-faced on one side of the room, answering questions in short little bursts.
“It was a personal game,” Selden is saying.
It was late on Thursday afternoon, nearly 30 minutes after No. 10 Kansas had outlasted Oklahoma State 77-70 in an overtime victory in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament. The Jayhawks had nearly given away an eight-point lead with seven minutes left before forcing overtime. But junior Naadir Tharpe says the new Kansas is a team that is learning to close out games, so senior forward Tarik Black stops to tell a little story from the moments after regulation.
It was 67-67 inside a sold-out Sprint Center, and freshman Andrew Wiggins had just missed an off-balance three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation. So Kansas coach Bill Self gathered his team in the huddle.
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“Coach is an interesting guy, but he tells the truth,” Black says. “That was actually the perfect thing to say at that moment because it was so true.”
The new Kansas closed out Oklahoma State in overtime, holding OSU scoreless for the last four minutes. Wiggins finished with 30 points — tied for the second-most by a KU player in the Big 12 Tournament. And the new Kansas beat an NCAA Tournament team with freshman center Joel Embiid on the sideline.
The new Kansas might be a little shorter, a little thinner inside — and a little worse at protecting the rim — but Self wanted his players to believe they can reach their goals with Embiid on the shelf because of a back injury.
“The great thing about this win for us,” Self said, “is we know we can do it without him. But we also know we’re better with him. But just because we don’t have a player that’s obviously a talented, talented kid … it doesn’t change who we are or what are goals should be.”
For the Jayhawks, who move on to face fourth-seeded Iowa State in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday, this was about more than belief. Before Thursday’s victory, the Jayhawks were 2-1 with Embiid on the sideline, with the victories against lightweights Texas Tech and TCU. A loss on Thursday would have fueled debate that Embiid’s injury should affect Kansas’ NCAA seed.
But as Self walked back to the locker room, the Jayhawks had proved to the NCAA selection committee they can be solid without their 7-foot freshman anchor in the paint.
“If things get tough,” Tharpe said, “there’s still a way we can turn it around and make it out to be a win.”
Kansas is still hopeful that Embiid could return for the second weekend on the NCAA Tournament. Embiid’s family, which traveled to Kansas City from Cameroon for the tournament, shares the sentiment.
“Hopefully he can come back soon,” said Embiid’s father, Thomas.
But for now, the new Kansas will fill the flanks with reinforcements. In the Jayhawks’ 10th straight victory in Kansas City, Black and Traylor combined for 13 points and 21 rebounds. Black and sophomore Perry Ellis both battled foul trouble, cracking the door for an Oklahoma State run in the second half. But the new Kansas still has one healthy phenom, and Wiggins carried Kansas on offense for the second straight game.
In Kansas’ last two games, Wiggins is averaging 35.5 points and eight rebounds, scraping closer toward his stratospheric ceiling. And during the final minutes on Thursday, it actually looked like Wiggins might headbutt the ceiling, throwing down an alley-oop from Selden that gave Kansas a 65-62 lead with more than two minutes left.
“We knew he had potential,” Kansas freshman guard Frank Mason said. “But right now he’s making next-level plays. He’s playing like a pro.”
Wiggins’ contribution bled into the defensive end. The Jayhawks held Oklahoma State to 37 percent shooting, and guards Markel Brown and Marcus Smart combined for 9-of-27 shooting. And just 12 days after the Jayhawks suffered a loss at Oklahoma State, they found a measure of revenge in Kansas City.
“Usually you won’t look at a first-round game in a tournament as a big game,” Selden said. “But this was a big game because that’s a great team, and they just beat us a couple weeks ago. It was a personal game.”
Now the new Kansas is looking forward. Another matchup with Iowa State on Friday. Another path to a still-attainable No. 1 seed after Villanova lost to a lowly Seton Hall on Thursday in the Big East Tournament.
The new Kansas might not be all that different than the old Kansas, but while the Jayhawks wait for Embiid’s back to heal, they will keep celebrating the victories.
“Our goals aren’t going to change,” Self said, “and they never change, regardless of who’s suited up. I think it should give us a little confidence.”