For the past seven days, during the brief film sessions and two-a-day practices and the boring monotony of a college campus on winter break, the Kansas Jayhawks were constantly reminded of one rather loaded word.
Yes, you remember Temple, right? Eight days earlier, on a chilly night in Philadelphia, the Jayhawks left the Wells Fargo Center after suffering the indignity of a 25-point loss. The KU big men converted just two buckets in 40 minutes. The Owls shot better than 58 percent from the floor.
It was the sort of loss — a metaphorical pile driver from the top rope — that Kansas coach Bill Self has rarely had to worry about, because, well, these are the sorts of losses that never happen to Kansas.
“Losses (stink),” Self said earlier this week.
His team, Self said, needed to play with more energy and more passion and more veteran poise. But that loss in Philadelphia? That wasn’t the real Kansas.
On Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse, No. 13 Kansas finally had an opportunity to move past a forgettable night against Temple. It came in the form of a matchup with a Kent State program that figured to be nothing more than a post-Christmas cupcake. That was the plan, anyway, and while the Jayhawks started a little slow in an eventual 78-62 victory at Allen Fieldhouse, the real promise came in the individual performances.
Freshman wing Kelly Oubre scorched Kent State for a game-high 20 points while hitting his first four three-pointers. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander broke out in a big way by scoring eight straight points during a decisive second-half run. Alexander, who had gone without a field goal during the Temple loss, was suddenly himself again, a bullish forward who can make plays by the sheer will of his athleticism and physical presence.
“When Cliff is playing like Cliff plays, it’s definitely bringing us energy,” Oubre would say. “He hasn’t shown what he can do for sure yet, but he will. It’s coming.”
Perhaps this sounds a little humorous coming from Oubre, who just a month ago was the struggling Kansas freshman looking for something to go his way. Now Oubre is has “solidified” himself as Kansas’ starter at the three-spot, Self says, and Alexander is the first-year player trying to find himself. Perhaps it all speaks to the natural inconsistency of freshmen.
But Self knows the following is true as much as anybody. If Kansas (10-2) is going to compete for, and win, an 11th straight Big 12 championship, the Jayhawks are going to be leaning on both of their uber-talented freshmen.
“To me, it’s not that complicated,” Self said of Alexander. “Because he can play well if he’s just active.”
On Tuesday, Self opted to start junior forward Jamari Traylor instead of Alexander, and in the first minute after his freshman power forward entered the game, Self called for his team to run a simple play off a free throw.
“He just gets back and doesn’t even run it,” Self said. “He’s only been in there for one minute — why wouldn’t he have effort to go make that play? I think that’s just kind of the stuff. It’s just consistency to go do it.”
On Tuesday, Alexander went scoreless deep into the second half. Then, you might say, he went and did it. During one stretch, Alexander scored eight straight points, blocked a shot and threw down a couple of emphatic dunks.
“Every time he’s in the game,” Oubre said, “it pumps us up.”
Alexander, a 6-foot-8 power forward, had been one of the Jayhawks’ most confounding players during the last three weeks. He had gone without a field goal in two of Kansas’ last three games and managed just one field-goal attempt in the Jayhawks’ loss at Temple.
But here was a reminder of what he can become. For the better part of 2014, the Jayhawks have lacked a true low-post scorer who can go to work on the block. Perhaps Alexander can still be that in 2015.
“If there were a few positives,” Self said, “Cliff was different the second half than what he was the first half.”
In other ways, the Jayhawks were different, too. KU shot 56 percent in the second half while holding Kent State to 32.3 percent after the break. After trailing 26-21 during the first half, the Jayhawks took control of the game and comfortably pulled away.
Junior Perry Ellis, who finished with 15 points, also found an offensive rhythm after making just three of his first nine shots from the field.
It was not vintage Ellis, who was responsible for the majority of Kent State’s five blocked shots in the first half. But it was a step forward after the 6-foot-8 forward’s one-of-10 performance against Temple.
Perhaps that was Tuesday night for Kansas — a small step forward after a week off for Christmas. A small step forward after a week spent thinking about Temple.
“We played good in stretches tonight, and played with better energy,” Self said. “We still made some mistakes.”