On early Saturday morning, in the hours before Kansas’ 75-62 statement over Texas, freshman forward Cliff Alexander was on the floor of Erwin Center, absorbing a shot to his sternum during the Jayhawks’ pregame shootaround.
Alexander, Kansas’ mercurial 6-foot-8 big man, grimaced as a large body part thwacked his chest and jostled a tender and bruised sternum. Kansas coach Bill Self, standing off to the side, was suddenly worried. In just a few hours, the 11th-ranked Jayhawks would take the floor against No. 17 Texas and a frontcourt that features a 285-pound center (Cameron Ridley), a 7-foot freshman (Myles Turner) and two other forwards that stand 6-foot-9 or taller.
“I’m thinking that Ridley’s gonna knock the crap out of him,” Self said, “but he fought through it.”
By late Saturday afternoon, the Jayhawks had indeed taken a few body shots from Texas’ beefy frontline. But they emerged unscathed and emboldened, a young team growing up on the national stage, securing a pivotal road victory in front of a capacity crowd of 16,540 inside the Erwin Center.
Alexander attacked the rim with a vengeance, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds in 27 minutes. Junior forward Perry Ellis stood up to the challenge, producing 14 points and three assists. And sophomore wing Brannen Greene unloaded an outside assault, hitting four of five from three-point range while scoring 14 points off the bench.
“That’s the best road game we’ve played in a long time,” Self said. “I mean, maybe years.”
It was, in simple terms, Kansas’ most complete victory in a season-long hunt for an unprecedented 11th straight Big 12 title. The Jayhawks improved to 16-3 overall and 5-1 in the Big 12, now possessing two crucial road wins. And for 40 minutes on Saturday, this was Kansas showing off the best version of itself, a tough, energized, efficient basketball team — floor burns and all — offering another message to a Big 12 conference that must be growing tired of this “Groundhog Day” existence by now.
“If we play with energy and unselfishness and those things,” Self said, “I think I could fall in love with this group. But we haven’t done that consistently.”
For Self, Saturday’s performance was near perfection. The Jayhawks finished with three turnovers, which matched the fewest by a KU team since 1966. But Self had other reasons to feel rejuvenated. He had also witnessed his platonic ideal of a basketball play — a sequence that defined Kansas’ victory and left Self throwing out the highest of praise.
During an off-the-rails, 40-second sequence in the first half, Kansas junior Jamari Traylor had his shot rejected, chased down a block on the other end, flew into the stands while attempting to snare an offensive rebound, and then forced a turnover by emerging from the stands and diving across the floor at a loose ball near midcourt.
“Crazy,” Traylor said.
“I thought that was the best play that I’ve seen since I’ve been at Kansas,” Self said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a better hustle play than that one.”
Perhaps that’s hyperbole in the moment after a galvanizing victory. But Self measures beauty in grit, pain and toughness, so perhaps he was right. The moment seemed to stoke Kansas’ fire. When Self headed to the locker room at halftime with Kansas leading 32-30, he found Texas coach Rick Barnes in the hallway.
“You’re good,” one coach said.
“You’re good, too,” the other responded.
Then Self pushed through a locker room door and delivered a simple message: Now it’s a game. For the next 20 minutes, the Jayhawks would outscore Texas 43-32, erasing a 44-39 deficit. Alexander would finish with 11 points and five rebounds in the second half.
“We haven’t seen Cliff run like that all year,” Self said. “I think he got four dunks blocked, and still he took it right at the rim every time. He was impressive.”
For Kansas, it was such a complete performance that it was easy to look past the exploits of Greene, who delivered some of the game’s biggest shots while sporting a black eye from a practice mishap with Ellis on Thursday. It was easy to look past guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, who combined for zero turnovers in 52 minutes of nearly flawless basketball.
It was easy to forget that, one year ago, the Jayhawks suffered an 81-69 loss at Texas while the Longhorns’ front line blocked 12 shots and guard Isaiah Taylor controlled the game with pace. One year later, Kansas had the outside arsenal — and the guards — to combat Texas’ strength.
“I thought Frank and Devonte’ just totally controlled the game in the second half,” Self said.
Here was Kansas, exerting its will on a ranked team on the road, pushing back against the notion that this might finally be the year the Jayhawks’ vaunted conference title streak ends. Self likes to say that road wins are precious, and here was Kansas, improving to 2-1 on the road in the Big 12 while taking sole possession of first place after Iowa State’s loss at Texas Tech. And, finally, here was Self, smiling in the area outside the Kansas locker room, watching his team come together during the final weeks of January.
“You can’t be giddy over one performance or one win,” Self said. “But you almost feel like you’re watching them grow up right in front of you.”