Thursday, March 10, 2011

Kansas survives upset bid by Oklahoma State

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From his seat on the bench, there was nothing Kansas center Markieff Morris could do to deny Oklahoma State’s attempt at a game-winning shot. So maybe that’s why he felt as he did.

“We were scared,” Morris told Sporting News after the No. 2 Jayhawks escaped their Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal with a 63-62 victory over the Cowboys. “I definitely was scared we might go down.”

It was much easier to admit this after a victory, but then a little fear can be healthy in this particular week.

The conference tournament is a tricky event for a team in Kansas’ position. The Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular season—for the seventh consecutive time, in fact. They were able to celebrate that championship in rival Missouri’s arena, and it’s hard to imagine anything much more delicious short of a Final Four or national title.

After the OK State win, KU coach Bill Self acknowledged that the Jayhawks aren’t even playing for a seed, that they know exactly where that discussion is headed. He didn’t say that meant the Jayhawks will be getting a No. 1. That would be immodest. So allow us to take care of that for him: The Jayhawks will be getting a No. 1 seed.

So, as a Method actor might say: What’s their motivation?

It is more fun to win one of these championships than to lose it, but it’s also more work.

In the end, it became about fear.

Morris said KU simply didn’t want to be one of those teams the nation would be talking about for the next 24 hours or so, the way they’ll pick through Pitt’s loss to Connecticut in the Big East quarterfinals.

“That’s not a good look for us,” he said.

In addition to not being entirely sure how badly they wanted to win this tournament, the Jayhawks also had to deal with a pre-noon tip-off time and Oklahoma State’s primary strategy: to dull up KU and neutralize its tremendous size advantage with a nuisance press and a 2-3 zone.

This tactic could not have worked better. The Jayhawks wound up shooting 35.9 percent from the field. Guards Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar shot a combined 5-of-20, and they’re the guys who ordinarily would be counted on to force the opposition out of a zone.

Self decided it wasn’t really helping to have both Morris twins on the floor against the zone, so Markieff wound up getting only 18 minutes. Self tried superb backup Thomas Robinson against it, but Robinson couldn’t convert several promising opportunities and wound up 0-for-5.

Eventually Self decided to go small and stick 6-6 Mario Little at the position that would nominally be considered the power forward. Just in time, too.

With the game tied at 60 and the final minute approaching, Little sliced to the center of the zone and accepted an entry pass, then spun hard into his right shoulder and banked in a lefty half-hook. As he scored, he was fouled by Oklahoma State’s Roger Franklin and the converted free throw that followed gave KU a 3-point advantage.

In a sense, it was that point that won the game.

“That 3-point play was pretty big,” Little said. “I knew that was a big shot. I was just fortunate to get the ball in the position I got it.”

OK State cut the deficit to a point on a runner by J.P. Olukemi, then forced a surprising shot-clock violation with one last episode of stout defense. But the Cowboys foolishly held the ball for the final shot and failed to generate even a decent look at the goal once they started their attack.

“Our guys were ready to play, but I think OSU was more ready,” Self said. “I’ve never been a believer that losing this time of year is good. You don’t have time to learn from it.”

If you’re going to play the game, you might as well win it. That ought to be enough impetus for any basketball team, in any circumstance. It’s what a champion does. It’s what Kansas did early Thursday afternoon.


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