By Rustin Dodd The Kansas City Star
NORMAN, Okla. — Elijah Johnson paused for a moment, letting the silence fill the room inside the bowels of the Lloyd Noble Center.
It had been nearly 30 minutes since Kansas’ latest loss, a 72-66 defeat to Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon. And Johnson had been asked about the last week, about what had been missing during the fifth-ranked Jayhawks implausible three-game skid.
One second passed. Then two. Then a few more. When the span of silence had reached nine seconds, Johnson finally let it out.
“I can’t say,” Johnson said. “There’s a couple of things. But right now we’re trying to figure that out. You can’t ask a man who just got knocked out to count to 10. He can’t think straight.”
Maybe this last week does require a little time and distance before being put in proper perspective. Kansas has now thudded to three straight losses — its first such skid in eight years. The Jayhawks, 19-4 and 7-3 in the Big 12, are now looking up at rival Kansas State in the Big 12 standings. And suddenly, after one of the Kansas program’s most miserable weeks in the last decade, all that chatter about the rest of the Big 12 playing for second place feels awfully premature.
“We were never quite as good as our record,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But we’re better than what we have played here this past week.”
The last eight days, of course, include a rare home loss to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse; a historically bad night at woebegone TCU; and now, a loss in a building where the Jayhawks had won four straight.
While the last two losses left Self fuming or lobbing sarcastic lines, he struck a more matter-of-fact guise on Saturday. His team had played better. It just wasn’t enough.
“I hate to say this,” Self said. “But there’s a lot of teams in the country that lose two or three games in a row. And there’s a lot of teams that struggle winning away from home.
“And this today, it isn’t magnified from a win-loss standpoint if we’d have taken care of business when we should have the prior game.”
From a statistical sense, Self was right. Kansas shot 46 percent from the field on Saturday. (And that included a three-for-11 day from Johnson, who continued his recent offensive slump.) The Jayhawks doubled up Oklahoma on points in the paint (32-16) and off turnovers (12-6). And on most days, Self said, that might be good enough to scratch out a road victory in the Big 12. But Kansas allowed Oklahoma to shoot 44.8 percent from the floor, including a scorching 55.6 mark in the first half, and big-men Romero Osby (17 points) and Amath M’Baye (eight points) stretched the floor against Kansas center Jeff Withey.
“They do a better job of anybody in our league at making in-between shots,” Self said. “Their posts play to 15-footers, and that’s a big advantage for them when they play us.”
The Sooners used the advantage to piece together a 38-30 lead at halftime before stretching the lead to 57-48 with 9:25 left in the second half. The deficit prompted Self to make two adjustments down the stretch: a four-guard lineup with forward Kevin Young in foul trouble, and a triangle-and-two defense in the final minutes.
The adjustments allowed Kansas to key on Oklahoma’s Steven Pledger and Osby, and the Jayhawks twice cut the lead to 60-59 and then 63-61 with 1:40 left. But Oklahoma answered with a three-point dagger each time. The first came after Pledger drifted open following a scramble for an offensive rebound. And the second came after KU allowed Oklahoma’s Je’lon Hornbeak to run free on the wing.
“We actually did an above-average job doing (the triangle-and-two),” Self said. “And then they had some guys step up and make some shots there.”
Now, of course, comes the reality. The Jayhawks’ offense hasn’t scored 70 points in a victory in more than a month. And KU hadn’t lost three straight to three unranked teams since the 1988 season. It means that KU will play host to Kansas State on Monday with the Wildcats in first place in the Big 12 — and almost assuredly with a better ranking.
This is the disorienting truth of the Big 12 race. After a week of losses, team meetings and jokes about the Topeka YMCA, the Jayhawks are still searching for solutions.
“It’s time to get closer,” Johnson said, “rather than pouting up. That’s the message I’m gonna try to get out to my team. It’s so easy to pout right now; so easy. Nobody cares. They want results, and that’s what I’m gonna stress to the team.”