I’m all for motivation. The best coaches and athletes can find motivation in a word or an action.
And I’m going to promise you there was enough motivation inside Bramlage Coliseum on Saturday evening to fill a Joel Osteen revival.
Kansas State was fueled by the late dunk by Brannen Greene during KU’s 77-59 win over the Wildcats on Feb. 3 at Allen Fieldhouse. The fuel spilled over this week, as K-State players talked about Greene in less-than-flattering ways. They also advised K-State students, as if they needed to be advised, to storm the court if the Wildcats pulled off a win the way they’ve pulled off wins the past two seasons against KU here.
Well, what motivates one team can certainly motivate the other. And while Kansas’ players and coach Bill Self publicly denied that the Kansas State verbal assault leading up to the game wasn’t a factor, it was.
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Kansas needed all the fire it could get to hold on for a 72-63 win Saturday. K-State cut a 17-point deficit to three but could only grasp at the top of the mountain before ultimately sliding back down.
The Wildcats are tough, determined and dangerous. But they’ve been too young and too inconsistent this season to get over the hump. It’s a young team with a bright future provided it stays together. And the last part of that sentence has to be mentioned considering how Kansas State’s core fell apart last season under Bruce Weber.
It was amazing to watch 6-foot-11 Stephen Hurt and 6-9 D.J. Johnson lead K-State’s comeback Saturday in such different ways.
Johnson made six free throws and a bucket during a 3:18 stretch while Hurt made two three-pointers and a two-pointer in a 2:55 stretch. Those big guys, averaging a combined 14.6 points, scored 16 straight for the Wildcats as they rallied from way down.
Kansas State’s difficulty scoring can be painful to watch at times and the Wildcats had scored only 16 points in 16:53 before Johnson and Hurt brought the Wildcats to life. What had been a 25-21 lead became a 57-41 deficit before Johnson and Hurt sparked the comeback.
It helped that KU’s Perry Ellis was in the locker room getting stitches for his noggin after taking a charge and hitting the back of his head on the floor as he fell. Ellis missed more than seven minutes of the second half. Meanwhile, KU frontcourt players Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor both fouled out. That left seldom-used Hunter Mickelson and Carlton Bragg in some tense situations.
Bragg made a big follow shot, Traylor had a slam dunk after a drive before exiting and KU guard Devonte Graham, who had 27 points in last week’s 76-72 win at Oklahoma, finally scored his first basket with 1:43 left to give the Jayhawks a 67-62 lead. He added four free throws down the stretch.
As Graham grabbed the game’s final rebound with three seconds left, he fell to the ground laughing with teammates Greene and Wayne Selden. But nobody from Kansas would admit how much the chatter coming out of Manhattan leading up to the game inspired them.
How could it not?
Coaches are always looking for ways to motivate teams, especially during the dog days of February. Not that Kansas needed much, certainly, after two consecutive losses to the Wildcats at Bramlage.
“I think it’s fine that they made mention of Brannen’s dunk,” KU’s Self said. “The home team uses whatever motivation they can. I think that matters more with fans than it does with players, at least on the opposing side.”
That’s Diplomacy 101 from a coach uninterested in fanning flames through a post-game microphone.
Still, encouraging students to rush the floor in case of a win is putting the cart in front of the horse, to say the least. I’m surprised Kansas State’s players were so public with their comments about that and about Greene’s late and unsportsmanlike dunk in the previous game.
When Greene came on the floor for pre-game warmups Saturday, he was greeted exactly as you’d expect. He walked in front of the K-State students and proceeded to dunk a basketball. The symbolism was deafening.
Greene was no factor in the game, though, as he played only five minutes and missed the only shot he took.
The best thing about the Jayhawks now is that they’re spreading the wealth. It was Graham against OU, it’s been Ellis often and there are times when Selden is the guy.
Saturday, it was point guard Frank Mason, who scored 16 points, had five assists and turned the ball over only once in 33 minutes. Kansas has won seven in a row since losing three of five in January and, at 11-3, has opened up a two-game lead in the Big 12 over West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor, all 9-5.
If there’s anything Kansas hasn’t needed during its remarkable 11-year run of Big 12 titles, it’s extra motivation. When playing the Jayhawks, it’s best to keep mouths shut.