Looking back now, of course, it was the best thing to happen to Kansas.
Jayhawks coach Bill Self admits it didn’t feel like that at the time — when his team lost three consecutive games in eight days, including a loss at TCU, which one analyst called the biggest upset of the past 20 years.
But KU (29-5) snapped out of its funk and has won 10 of its next 11 games, including a dominating three-game string last week to win its ninth Big 12 tournament title. It’s not that the Jayhawks are playing better, it’s that they are again playing like one of the best teams in the country as the NCAA tournament begins Thursday. KU earned a No. 1 seed and opens against Western Kentucky (20-15) at 8:50 p.m. Friday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. — the same place the Jayhawks’ won the Big 12 six days earlier.
“I hate saying this and people won’t like this but maybe the most important stretch we had this year was our eight-day stretch in which we weren’t very good,” Self said Monday during a teleconference. “I don’t think you can have totally smooth seasons and all of a sudden perform when it gets a little tough in certain situations. I really think that helped us. I didn’t think it going through it and certainly didn’t like it, but looking back now and we were able to accomplish what we accomplished … I’m not sure we would have done those things if it weren’t for that week.”
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What exactly happened during that stretch? The 19-1 Jayhawks, ranked No. 1 by the coaches and No. 2 by the Associated Press at the time, started to look invincible and perhaps started playing like the wins would continue on auto-pilot.
“We thought we were the best before that little streak and we got put in our place,” senior post Jeff Withey said, “and we learned from losing and we [spun] it into a positive. The taste we had after losing three in a row … we didn’t want that anymore. I think we got humbled and figured out we had to come ready to play every time. Since then, I think we have. We wouldn’t be as good as we are if we didn’t go through that hardship.”
KU lost at home Feb. 2 for the first time in 33 games to Oklahoma State — a very good team no opponent should take lightly. Four days later came a baffling loss at TCU, which was 0-8 in the Big 12. The Jayhawks shot a season-low 13 percent in the first half (3 of 22 from the field) and had 13 points at halftime — their lowest scoring half since at least 1989. The streak continued at Oklahoma three days later when the Sooners pinned KU with its first three-game losing streak since 2005.
Finally, back at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., the Jayhawks rebounded against in-state rival Kansas State with a 83-62 win on Feb. 11. KU opened the game shooting nearly 60 percent in the first half and nearly doubled the Wildcats in rebounding. KU’s hot shooting continued into the Big 12 tournament. The Jayhawks set a tournament record with 55.6 percent field-goal percentage. One of the integral shooters at the tournament was freshman Perry Ellis, who came off the bench to score a combined 43 points on 18-of-23 shooting in three games. Self, who has urged Ellis to be more assertive on the floor throughout the season, wasn’t completely surprised by Ellis’ showing last week.
“I can’t say I saw signs that he was going to make the all-tournament team and be our leading scorer over the tournament — I didn’t see that happening,” Self said. “I did see signs throughout the year and more signs more recently of him having a breakout game or him impacting our team in ways that he hasn’t consistently been able to yet just because his confidence level is getting higher and he’s starting to feel a little bit more relaxed. He’s a terrific kid. He thinks too much and when you think too much and you’re trying to please all the time, you don’t react as quickly.”
Ellis, who was valedictorian at Wichita (Kan.) Heights High School, said he’s more confident on the floor when he reminds himself it’s just basketball.
“There’s nothing really to worry about,” he said after scoring 12 points in KU’s title win over Kansas State. “It’s just basketball and I know how to play.”
For Self, it’s a sign that Ellis, who was recruited by KU as a high school freshman, is playing like he’s finally comfortable with his role on the team. It came right as leading scorer freshman Ben McLemore (16.4 points a game) struggled to find the basket and combined for 15 points in the final two games of the Big 12 tournament.
“It seems like, to me, the last five games [Ellis] has played with such a free mind,” Self said. “And we need him. There’s no question it changes the complexion of our team entirely when you know you can go to our bench and have guys that can score. In two games in which Ben doesn’t score the ball to have a guy that kind of replaces him as a guy who’s scoring the ball and comes away with 35 points or what not — that’s production that definitely offsets maybe when your leading scorer is not having a scoring game. So he’s been great for us and hopefully that trend will continue.”