By Rustin Dodd
Tribune News Service
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Perry Ellis leaned forward in his chair and picked at a piece of black medical tape holding his right knee into place. On the other side of the room, Kelly Oubre shook his head and called his own personal performance "terrible." Devonte' Graham lamented a fatal turnover in the final seconds as specks of tears welled in his eyes.
This was the scene from Saturday night, the Kansas locker room in the moments after a 70-66 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament championship game.
"We've learned all our lessons," Oubre said. "We can't learn anymore."
Outside the locker room, as Kansas coach Bill Self stood up against a wall in a Sprint Center hallway, the tone was slightly more upbeat. Less than an hour earlier, Self's Kansas team had been forced into a zone defense after a near flawless second-half performance from Iowa State's Swiss Army knife offense. The Jayhawks had squandered a 17-point lead with 19:30 remaining. Iowa State had worked over Kansas' defense with a simple offensive approach that one Kansas player simply described as, "Take 'em -- one on one."
But in this moment, Self was less concerned with the loss, and more concerned with the future.
"Frustrating is a pretty good word," Self said. "But this is the quickest turnaround -- win or lose. Tomorrow, it doesn't matter who wins."
In a big-picture sense, Self is right. When the brackets are revealed at 5 p.m. Sunday, it will not matter who won the Big 12 Tournament on Saturday night. Kansas will see its name in the bracket -- likely as a No. 2 seed, though possibly a No. 3 -- and the most important part of the season will begin.
"If we go and do what we're supposed to do," sophomore forward Landen Lucas said, "this will be gone and forgotten. It can go two ways, and we control our own destiny. It's in our hands."
And yet, the contents of Saturday's loss can certainly be inspected. The Jayhawks shot just 37.7 percent, failing to score 70 points for the fifth time in seven games. Ellis finished with just seven points on two-of-10 shooting, his mobility and athleticism still limited by a right knee sprain. If not for sophomore guard Wayne Selden, who broke out for 25 points, the offense would have looked even more dysfunctional.
"We had no inside game at all," Self said. "They just packed it in and dared us to make plays and we couldn't make them."
In the moments after the game, Self talked about his team becoming "whole" over the next week. That means a healthier Ellis, for one, but it also means some rest for Lucas, who has been slowed by a nagging hip injury. The Jayhawks are beat up, like many teams are at this time of year. But with freshman forward Cliff Alexander out indefinitely while the NCAA investigates an eligibility issue, the Jayhawks' problems in the paint are magnified.
"We need a week to get well," Self said, "and hopefully we'll back with our batteries recharged next week."
You could say that Kansas looked fatigued during Saturday's second half. The Cyclones shot 51 percent and put up 47 points while making just one of five from three-point range in the second half. At times, it looked as if Kansas had no answer for the Cyclones' myriad ball screens and simple drives to the basket. Iowa State forward Georges Niang diced up Kansas for 19 points and five rebounds. Reserve forward Abdel Nader proved a major mismatch and hung 13 points in just 25 minutes.
"They were just picking on guys and just going one on one," Graham said.
Despite the second-half collapse, the score was still tied at 63-63 with 1:29 left. But a costly turnover from Graham and another empty offensive possession helped Iowa State start a raucous party inside a Sprint Center that was swarming with Iowa State red.
"If you don't bring 40 minutes of great basketball every night," Oubre said, "you're going to be beat."
The Jayhawks have learned this lesson the hard way this year. And on Saturday, they learned it as Self fell to 6-1 in Big 12 Tournament title games. For 20 minutes, the Jayhawks pieced together half of near perfection, building a 37-23 lead. They backed it up with 20 minutes of struggle.
"We basically played a pitiful half of basketball and a really good half of basketball," Self said. "And our pitiful half was a little worse than our really good half."
By late Saturday, the Kansas locker room emptied out and the Jayhawks awaited their fate on Selection Sunday. Here it was, another lesson. The Jayhawks don't want to learn anymore.
"The next lesson we're going to learn," Oubre said, "is going to be season-ending."