By Rustin Dodd
Tribune News Service
NORMAN, Okla. — It was supposed to be meaningless, the kind of game you play because the schedule requires it.
Four days before taking the floor at the Lloyd Noble Center on Saturday afternoon, Kansas had wrapped up the outright Big 12 title with a you-had-to-be-there-to-believe-it comeback against West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse. In five days, the Jayhawks would head to Kansas City for the start of a grueling Big 12 tournament.
The Kansas roster was gutted, ravaged by injuries, suspensions and the persistent cloud of NCAA issues. The Jayhawks' leading scorer (Perry Ellis) was sidelined. Their best defensive rebounder (Cliff Alexander) didn't make the trip while an NCAA investigation into his eligibility continued. Another regular (Brannen Greene) was suspended before Saturday's game.
It was supposed to be meaningless. But in the moments after No. 9 Kansas' 75-63 loss to No. 15 Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon, it didn't feel that way. It didn't feel that way when forward Landen Lucas showed up to the postgame press conference with puffy eyes. It didn't feel that way as forward Jamari Traylor, wearing a set of gold headphones around his neck, lamented the final minute as he left the Kansas locker room. It didn't feel that way after Oklahoma's Buddy Hield leaped over the shoulders of Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre and beat the buzzer with a two-handed tip-in with 0.2 seconds left.
"Bad deal," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
"We don't come here to lose," said Lucas, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
"It's not meaningless," said sophomore guard Frank Mason, who finished with a game-high 21 points. "We play every game to win."
In the moments after the game, the focus was not the players that Kansas was missing, but rather a defensive lapse in the final seconds that cost the Jayhawks a game for the second time this year. The moment came with four seconds left, after Mason had tied the game at 73-73 with three clutch free throws.
Oklahoma inbounded the ball to guard Jordan Woodard, who used a ball screen and then split two defenders to get all the way to the basket. Woodard's off-balance leaner bounced off, but it left Kansas out of position as Hield jumped and finished at the rim.
"We just didn't do our jobs," Graham said.
Self had instructed his players to switch all ball screens, but the mistake came when the Jayhawk didn't funnel the ball toward the sideline. Self, watching from the sideline, had immediately flashbacks to a loss at West Virginia, when the Mountaineers' Juwan Staten had gotten loose on a similar play and beat KU at the buzzer.
"It's cost us two games at the buzzer," Self said, "just by us not being able to defend that."
That Kansas, 24-7 overall and 13-5 in the Big 12, was even in that situation, in a tie game at Oklahoma, was somewhat surprising. Ellis, a Big 12 player of the year candidate, was out with a sprained right knee. Alexander missed his third straight game. And Self revealed Greene's suspension on Saturday morning. To make matters worse, starting guard Wayne Selden was just zero for seven while trying to play on a sprained ankle.
"Looking back now," Self said, "I wish I wouldn't have played Wayne."
But there they were, tied at 73-73 after Self drew up a late-game play that worked perfectly. Trailing 73-70, and fearing that Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger would foul and prevent KU from taking a three-pointer, Self crafted a play that included a full-court pass to Lucas, and a quick pitch to a trailing Mason, who was fouled while in his shooting motion.
"If Lon is going to foul with 10 seconds left, you know he's going to foul with six seconds left," Self said. "So we'll try to do something before they foul."
All game, of course, Kansas had been piecing things together. Lucas played a season-high 33 minutes. Freshman guard Devonte' Graham was needed for 29 minutes. And little-used freshman wing Svi Mykhailiuk played 13 minutes off the bench.
"I'm proud of our guys," Self said.
For the second time in five days, the Jayhawks had nearly forced overtime with a wild scramble of a comeback in the final minute. This time, though, they came up a bucket short. Oklahoma, 21-9 overall and 12-6 in the Big 12, cemented itself in second.
Now they can rest. In five days, Kansas will open the Big 12 tournament at 1:30 p.m. Thursday against the winner of No. 8 seed Kansas State and No. 9 TCU. Maybe Ellis will be healthy enough to play then. Perhaps Alexander's NCAA fate will be clearer. On Saturday, the Jayhawks played a game that, in the grand scheme of the season, didn't really mean anything. But for Kansas, that thought didn't do much to soothe the pain from a loss.
"I talked to the guys about this being a statement game," Self said. "You won the league, now make a statement to put some separation between winning the league and the second-place team. And we didn't do it."