Bill Self’s Backup: A Brand New Team

By: Chris O’Brien

Two weeks ago, I looked at the road ahead and saw no way the Kansas Jayhawks could put together enough wins to hang onto this consecutive Big 12 title streak.

@ Baylor, @ Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, @ Texas Tech, Texas, @ Oklahoma State

I looked at that slate and honestly thought there was a chance we might go 1-6. Play our way out of the Top 25.

I mean think about it: Baylor almost beat us at home, same with Iowa State, and Oklahoma State did knock us off (and did it somewhat convincingly). West Virginia was better than us for 36 minutes in Morgantown, Oklahoma beat us in Norman. And Texas Tech manhandled us in the Phog. The Longhorns seemed like the only thing close to a lock, and who knows with them, Shaka Smart may have his guys peaking at the right time.

So the journey began. After losing at Baylor and not being overly impressive at Iowa State, I wrote that this season all makes sense and becomes less frustrating if you just view our team as a No. 7 seed.

Wow. What a difference a week can make. I’m honestly dumbfounded. I really can’t believe what I’m seeing in the tournament projections. Joe Lunardi has us on the No. 1 line. Jerry Palm has us No. 1 out West. And I even find myself thinking, “Well, the resume is at least good enough for a 2.”

West Virginia

In college basketball, as well as the NBA, you can tell when both teams are UP for a game.

Like when Golden State drops one to Sacramento in December, no one’s out there making a legitimate case that the Kings are right there with the Warriors. But when Houston and Golden State battle, both teams clearly going all out, everyone locked in, those results do matter. It’s why this Saturday’s Kansas vs. Texas Tech game is so important to watch; both of those teams (+ the fans) will be treating that like a Final Four matchup.

That’s what I saw in West Virginia vs. Kansas. The first half was just great basketball. This was the West Virginia team of two months ago who, it seems distant now, but they were No. 2 in the AP poll, 15-1 overall.

That level of West Virginia team stuck around all second half, going up by 10 points pretty late in the game. Daxter Miles was unstoppable. Jevon Carter always awesome. Konate a force in the middle. When I see West Virginia play like this, I start to think the Final Four is possible but then…

Another double-digit comeback. Not as severe as Morgantown, or West Virginia’s loss to Kentucky, but still another big lead lost by the Mountaineers. These types of results are why I’ll struggle to even take Huggins’ squad to the Sweet 16.

How did it happen? Huggins and West Virginia fans will say it was simple, just point to the free throws (a ridiculous 35 – 2). And yeah, that probably played a factor. But couple things I noticed:

  • This was Doke’s best game of the year. 7-for-10 at the line!!
  • Konate didn’t make us look like school children again
  • Graham, always solid, another 15-8-7
  • Vick is back. All along, we just needed him to be a 10 – 15 ppg guy.
  • Kind of like the Konate point above, the press didn’t bother us nearly as much. Only eight turnovers.

Oklahoma

Then came the game we have wanted all year long. One that didn’t come down to the last minute. A margin we haven’t seen since those early non-conference games.

So many things to love about this 104-74 victory. The 3-pt shooting (16-of-29!). The balance on offense (six guys in double figures, including DE SOUSA!!). Svi was back, four made threes, seven rebounds, four assists. Another good game from Vick and Newman. Doke blocking shots. Lightfoot coming in and blocking three shots including that epic one on Trae Young. Graham dropping 23 and 7 assists and hey, he actually got to rest, only played 35 minutes!

IF this team gets knocked out in March, I feel like I’ll come running back to this game film to fight off the post-tourney depression (actually, that might backfire on me. I’ll think, “If we could have just played like this!”) 

I had the thought after the game, “See, why couldn’t we just play like this all year,” then realized, this isn’t a team that’s been underachieving. We just weren’t there yet.

Doke had to go through the hell in Oklahoma to become obsessed with his free throw form, turn into a sixty percent shooter rather than low 30s.

Devonte` Graham had to meet with Sherron Collins after the Arizona State and Washington losses to get some leadership lessons.

Vick and Newman needed to be benched as a wake-up call. Lightfoot needed the extra playing time to keep improving. Svi needed to adjust his game, start attacking the basket more, not just shooting threes.

De Sousa, I mean he wasn’t even on the team until Big 12 play. And, remember, this is like a second-semester high school senior. I’ve listened to a couple of his interviews, he talks about how lost he was those first few weeks, didn’t know the plays, wasn’t used to how fast the game was. He needed time, needed the practices, and he had to figure it all out without much playing time in competitive games.

De Sousa’s 10 points against Oklahoma was great to see, but maybe even more entertaining was seeing Doke and Vick on the bench flexing every time he scored. This team finally looked like one collective unit against Oklahoma. There was so much energy, so much trust, and they looked like they were finally having fun in Allen Fieldhouse versus being a step slow, or too tense, or whatever led to an unprecedented three home losses.

The Jayhawks hasn’t been hiding this type of performance from us all season, they’re still figuring things out. It just took us 28 games to get there.

But man, with Graham at the helm, Doke playing this well, all the guards locked in, great contributions from Garrett, Lightfoot, and De Sousa; we could be a really tough out in the tournament.

I need to adjust my headline from last week. This is a 7-seed; who turned into a 1.

 

 

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