If the Kansas Jayhawks proved anything Saturday afternoon, it's that the concepts of a (mostly) poorly-played game and a quality win can co-exist.
On one hand, the box score of their 63-60 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers wasn't exactly pretty. Doc Sadler's boys absolutely beasted the Jayhawks on the glass, for example, outrebounding them 43-32 on the game, and recording a staggering 19 offensive rebounds. So erratic were guards Elijah Johnson and Josh Selby that they played a combined 22 minutes and were absent for virtually the entire second half.
On the other, this Nebraska squad looks to be seriously legit. Sadler has had the Huskers playing with fire since he was hired in 2006, but this may be his most complete team. They play hard, they have some talent both in the post and on the perimeter, and they are exceedingly well-coached.
Want proof? Take a look at the national rankings for field goal percentage defense, and check out who's at the very top.
"They are a great defensive team," noted junior forward Marcus Morris. "They rotate really well, their guards reach in very well, and they do a good job of taking away your strengths. They did everything well early in the game. They have the number one defensive percentage in the country for a reason."
"The thing I like about our team is that they're not going to take a second seat to anybody," a fired-up Sadler said, following the game. "They're going to play hard, but you have got to win the basketball game. We didn't and it's disappointing."
The game plan for Nebraska was simple, and may have laid out the blueprint for the rest of the conference in how to keep things close against this athletic and talented group of Jayhawks:
Pack the paint. Don't let anything easy come down low, and make their guards beat you.
For 25 minutes, the strategy worked brilliantly. With every pass contested and seemingly every rebound ending up in the hands of a combatant clad in red, Kansas shot just 33.3-percent from the floor in the first half.
Nebraska owned a 30-25 lead at halftime, and pushed it to 10 at the first media timeout, 38-28.
"We played poorly, but we still tried hard," Kansas head coach Bill Self said. "The second half couldn't have started more miserably. Five straight turnovers and we didn't get a shot until 16:40 and then, for whatever reason, we started playing.'
Self has never been afraid to tinker with his lineups, and Saturday was no exception. With Johnson and Selby on the bench and the Huskers still dominating the glass, he chose to go big – placing Marcus Morris on the wing, Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson down low, and Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar in the backcourt.
Unusual though it may be, the combination worked. Robinson and Marcus Morris brought the Allen Fieldhouse crowd – which was primed to explode all day long – surging to its feet with a handful of thunderous dunks. Reed canned critical three-pointers (tying Marcus Morris for a game-high with 16 points), Morningstar made hustle plays and reserve forward Mario Little got into the act, using his quickness advantage in the post to attack the basket and create opportunities for his teammates.
There are still red flags here. One wonders why it seems to take impending doom to motivate the Jayhawks into playing like they're capable of playing, as has frequently been the case this season.
But the balance of power has shifted in the Big 12. Whereas the bulk of the best teams in the conference have resided in the South in recent seasons, this year two games against Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska represents something of a gauntlet.
So the Jayhawks may not have played particularly well for most of the game. They may have been outrebounded by double digits. But they won in the end, and in this conference, against this particular Nebraska team, that's worth quite a bit.
"Our Big 12 – and fans may say we played poorly, and we did play poorly – but our Big 12 is a lot like the NFL," Self explained. "There are no games you circle and say 'this is for sure a win' – especially when you're well-coached and tough. Doc has those guys playing."