The play was called “Ear,” a new design that Kansas’ coaching staff cooked up earlier this week, and it was breaking down right before Brannen Greene’s eyes.
It was late on Wednesday night inside the Verizon Center, a seemingly benign venue that had turned hostile in the final minutes as the prospect of a victory over Kansas begun to feel real. The 10th-ranked Jayhawks led Georgetown by one basket with 2:40 left, and sophomore guard Wayne Selden was driving middle, looking for a way out of a busted play.
Greene, a sophomore whose career to this point had been defined by a rotating spot in Bill Self’s doghouse, sensed the moment and set his feet on the wing.
“I found myself wide open,” Greene said. “I just took my time.”
Greene’s three-pointer — his fifth of the night — splashed through the net, and the energy drained from the building. Georgetown’s “Hoya Saxa” faithful let out a deep sigh. The Jayhawks were on their way to a 75-70 victory in their first true road test of the season.
“I loved that three, honestly,” Greene said. “That was a big three.”
On a night when the Jayhawks (7-1) won their sixth straight and notched another resume-building victory, the role of hero was reserved for Greene, who finished with 19 points after playing just 14 total minutes in KU’s previous two games.
“According to him,” Self said, “if I’d let him play, he could do that most every night.”
This quote from Self was said with some degree of jest, but it helps explain the bumpy two-year path of Greene, who entered last season as a heralded sharpshooter from Georgia.
“He’s a talented kid,” Self said. “But he’s gotten in his own way with us on the court by not doing probably what we think he’s capable of doing, and tonight he was totally different.”
Self wants to be clear that Greene’s frustrating sins are of the on-court variety. There are times where Greene will botch a defensive assignment. He’s also a chronic ball-watcher, meaning he gets caught in awkward positions on defense. But Greene has always had the ability to shoot. And on a day like Wednesday — where the Jayhawks shot 10 of 36 from inside the three-point line — the three-point shooting was critical.
This was the good side of Greene, Self said, and it wasn’t just the shooting. He played a complete game.
“I’m a believer,” Self said, “and maybe I’m wrong, but in order for us to win big, we’ve got to have everybody focused and trying to do the things that we need to do.”
These have always been Self’s favorite type of wins. It was messy. It was gritty. The Jayhawks shot 37.7 percent from the floor and still found a way to win. For Self, that was beautiful.
“I think we’re learning how to win ugly,” Self said.
On Wednesday, that meant making 25 of 32 from the free-throw line. It meant sophomore guard Frank Mason picking up a crucial steal in the final minutes. It meant surviving a slugfest with Georgetown center Josh Smith, a 350-pound brickhouse who finished with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
“That’s a big dude,” said Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre, who played a career-high 16 minutes.
The Jayhawks, who are trending upward after a humbling loss to No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 18, will face No. 13 Utah at Sprint Center on Saturday. And if you would have told Self that his Jayhawks would be in this position before the season started, he would have shrugged his shoulders and said: Yes, perfect.
“God,” Self said, “I’ll sell out for that.”
The Jayhawks defeated Georgetown despite coughing up a 28-15 lead in the first half. They won while junior forward Perry Ellis finished 4 of 15 from the floor. They won while turning the ball over 17 times.
“It was a big-boy game,” Oubre said, “and we stepped up.”
Perhaps no player stepped up as much as Greene, who sat at a microphone and reflected on the best game of his young career.
“I just found myself open and I let it go,” Greene said. “That’s what I do. I shoot the ball.”
The Jayhawks still do things that irritate Self, and this frustration is not limited to Greene. This can be a pretty bad passing team, Self says, and on most nights he’s still not sure which perimeter players will take the minutes. For example: On Wednesday, starting wing Svi Mykhailiuk was limited to five minutes after Self deemed that it was “not his night.”
But the frustrations, primarily, come from things that can be fixed. Then there’s the ability to win a hard-fought road game in a hostile building — even one where the “Rock Chalk” chant rings out from the nosebleed seats in the final moments.
That’s something that can’t be defined.
“It was a toughness win,” Greene said. “Coach kept saying the tougher team was going to win, and that’s what I felt like we did. We grinded it out.”