LAWRENCE — Kansas freshman Wayne Selden jumped onto his Twitter account Saturday morning and left a rather cryptic message:
It was nearly five hours before No. 15 Kansas engaged in a mixed-martial arts battle with No. 9 Oklahoma State. Five hours before the teams combined for five technicals and two flagrant fouls. Five hours before a young Kansas team tightened its grip on the Big 12 title race with an 80-78 victory.
So really, Selden could have been referring to just about anything. Sometimes breakfast can be pretty personal, you know. But let’s let common sense prevail. All week long, the Jayhawks had heard about the backflip, that day last February when guard Marcus Smart led the Cowboys to an upset victory at KU, then celebrated with a flip heard round the Big 12.
“That’s all we’ve been hearing, even before conference play started,” junior guard Naadir Tharpe said. “ ‘Oklahoma State, Oklahoma State.’ ”
Maybe the whole thing really was a non-issue, overblown in the ways storylines can be in the days before big games. Kansas coach Bill Self cared little about Smart’s flip. But in the moments after Saturday’s victory, he did admit this: He was glad his players appeared to care about the flip.
“Marcus Smart doing a backflip, that’s our fault,” Self said. “That wasn’t his fault.
“But the media was able to play on that, and I think because the media played on it, I think both teams were turned up pretty good today.”
The funny thing about sports is that the storylines, manufactured or otherwise, often have a tendency to hinge on a few plays that really could go either way. And after 40 minutes Saturday, the complete picture on Kansas was a little muddy.
For one half, in an emotionally charged atmosphere, the Jayhawks looked like a Final Four team. They dominated inside, outscoring the Cowboys 22-4 in the paint. They built a 47-30 lead. They held Oklahoma State to 30.8-percent shooting.
For another half, they almost let the game slip away. On the sideline, Self was having flashbacks to last season’s Sweet 16 collapse against Michigan.
“It’s an eerie feeling,” Self said, “but that was the same game.”
Oklahoma State’s Phil Forte hit seven three-pointers. Smart drew a suspect flagrant foul when Selden tried to clear some space with an elbow with 1:31 to play.
“Nicked me a little bit,” Smart said, “and the refs made the right call.”
The Cowboys (15-3, 3-2 in the Big 12) closed the game on a 9-3 run. And somehow, they had a chance to win in the final seconds. But KU freshman guard Frank Mason stripped the ball from Le’Bryan Nash as he tried to attempt a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“I just tried to make the play,” Mason said, “And I wasn’t thinking about fouling, so I didn’t foul.”
Inside the Kansas locker room, it was a mix of relief and accomplishment. Joel Freshman Kansas freshman Joel Embiid had 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks, a KU freshman record. But Self wished KU would have gone inside to Embiid more.
“For him to only get six shots when we have a size advantage,” Self said, “obviously we didn’t play very smart.”
While Embiid’s transformation from raw big man to lottery talent continues to take shape, he also picked up a technical for the third straight game. This time, Embiid shoved an opponent after the whistle. When a reporter asked if he needed to be smarter, Embiid’s answer was pretty simple:
“Umm, Yep,” he said, before doubling over in laughter and landing in Tharpe’s lap.
Kansas (13-4) has opened the Big 12 with four straight victories, taking sole possession of first place. In one breath, Self deemed Saturday’s performance a “step sideways.” But later, he found some positive spin.
Freshman Andrew Wiggins, the Jayhawks’ leading scorer, finished with a season-low three points while taking just five shots. And sophomore forward Perry Ellis was invisible at times, finishing with six points against a small OSU frontcourt. But the fact KU still beat a top-10 team with their top two scorers struggling? Self will take that.
“Wiggs had the worst game he’s had all year,” Self said. “Perry’s had as bad a game he’s had all year. Wayne had as bad a game as he’s had in a long time. And we won.”
More than anything, Self said, that was theme of Saturday’s victory. Great win, but.
“God, there’s so much room to get to get better,” Self said. “I think the whole goal is getting better. And then if you do that, the wins and losses take care of themselves.”