It is tough to remember the last time the Sunflower Showdown meant more to Kansas than it did to Kansas State, but that is the situation with which we were presented last night in Lawrence. The Jayhawks had lost three straight and were a game behind their in state rivals, needing this win in order to stay in the Big 12 title hunt.
And this game was just what the doctor ordered. A raucous Allen Fieldhouse, an energized Kansas team, and the perfect opponent to play against. The Jayhawks were pumped up from the beginning, and hardly let up the entire game, finishing the contest scoring 1.24 points per possession, their highest total since facing American in December. They shot well from three (38%) but more importantly shot 54% from two.
Defensively the Jayhawks allowed .93 points per trip, but the individual components made it look much more impressive. They allowed the Wildcats to shoot just under 39% from two and finally had a good turnover day, forcing turnovers on over 20% of the Wildcats' possessions. But the most impressive effort was on the glass: Kansas State relies on second shots about as much as any team in the country (although they have been much worse in Big 12 play), and they grabbed just 18% of their misses. After all of the rebounding worries people have (rightfully) had about the Jayhawks, they now rank first in the league in offensive rebounding and second in defensive rebounding.
Also, to put the refs theme to bed: Kansas attempted more twos, yet Kansas State had a higher free throw rate.
Long term, the Jayhawks still have a bit of an uphill climb. They are in basically a three way tie for first in the league (assuming Oklahoma State defeats Tech on Wednesday) and still have trips to Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Their road in is the toughest of the contenders, and they likely need the win over the Cowboys to win the league. Last night was a perfect storm of environment and opponent, and we still need to see how this team plays on the road against teams who know they can win.
The good news, though, is this: I mentioned yesterday that if the shots started falling Kansas is a top five offense again, and we saw that last night. We also saw that if they play with energy and confidence, games like last night can happen. There still is no excuse for not beating TCU, and while they played OK against Oklahoma, there isn't an excuse for not playing with more energy in Norman. But when they play energetically and confidently, they can beat any team in the country. They'll certainly be playing with energy in the Tournament; we just have to wait and see about the confidence.
- We will start with Jeff Withey, who broke the Kansas record for blocks in a career and has a pretty good chance to break Chris Mihm's Big 12 record on Saturday against his former team. He had 5 blocks in the game....and 17 points and 10 rebounds. He was also 7-8 from the line, which is a big boost for him as he has been struggling this season a bit.
- Birthday boy Ben McLemore had 30 points on just 13 field goal attempts, which equates to a Points Per Weighted Shot of 1.59. He took 10 threes last night and frankly I am fine with him taking that many every game, even games where he makes only 3 of them
- Naadir Tharpe had his best game in a long time, with 8 assists and just 1 turnover. He also did a good job on defense, having to guard all of Angel Rodriguez, Will Spradling and Rodney McGruder.
- Speaking of, Elijah Johnson didn't play well offensively, but he did play good defense on the aforementioned trio, and while McGruder and Rodriguez ended up with good shooting nights, they were forced into mostly tough looks and turned it over seven times between them. Not all were his doing of course, but of the three players tasked with guarding them (he, Tharpe and Releford) Johnson did the best job fighting through the maze of screens.
- Kevin Young missed a couple of layups and had a couple dumb fouls, but in all he was pretty fantastic (even hitting a jumper!): he was 6-9 from the field and had 9 rebounds as well, and brought a lot of much needed energy.
- Travis Releford took 8 shot attempts (yay!) and to build off yesterday's post, he, McLemore and Withey took 31 of Kansas's 58 shot attempts. They also were 11-18 from two and 7-13 from three as a group. Not too bad. They'll need to get some secondary scoring because that will obviously be tough to keep up every game, so the next key is getting Johnson to hit his layups.
- The game MVP, though, is going to go the crowd: I was at the game and it would have been pretty easy for them to be down about the losing streak, the Big 12 title chase slipping away, etc. but they were loud and raucous the whole game, and it was a huge boost to the Jayhawks. Hopefully it stays that good the rest of the year, and even more hopefully the Jayhawks can bottle some of that energy for the road.