KU was heavily favored against a team it demolished by nearly 30 points just over 2 weeks ago. But this Cowboy team was pretty darn close to handing KU its second ever loss in Big 12 Tournament opener. Eventually Mario Little made the play of the game and helped KU earn a semifinal appearance with a 63-62 win.
In the first matchup this season KU contained Keaton Paige. In this one he managed 23 points on 6-12 shooting. Paige gave the Cowboys much needed momentum early. On defense, Travis Ford opted to pack it in and KU shot a season-worst 35.9 percent from the floor including a dismal 5-25 from three-point range. It proved to be a successful combination for Oklahoma State and don't think there won't be some NCAA opponents taking a peek at this game tape next week.
So against a packed in zone Head Coach Bill Self turns to his zone buster - senior Mario Little. Prior to the conference season beginning just after the Michigan game I talked to Coach about how comfortable Mario looks in the middle of a zone. It's critical to have a player at the free throw line who can make good decisions, can shoot, can pass, and even drive it. Little has done that consistently and Thursday finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds, and the biggest play of the game.
"When teams go zone, Coach likes to throw me in the middle," said Little who's three-point play broke a 60-60 tie with just under 1:15 left in the game. "I just like to turn and face and try to catch it and maybe hit a guy somewhere or drive."
"When he came in with about a minute and a half to go he missed a couple of middle shots," said Marcus Morris who scored just three of his 16 points in the second half. "I told him to just stay aggressive because they were small and they gave me a better chance of getting it off the rebound. And I knew he makes those shots all the time so I told him to keep shooting."
So now do you opt to push the panic button when KU wins by just one against a team that is just 19-13? Or do you look for the positives which is that KU has now won three pretty "muddied" up games in the last couple weeks of the season? The offense didn't click in a 64-51 win vs. Texas A&M, against Missouri KU overcame sloppy play with 24 turnovers. Now in an outing where Self said it was simply "bad shooting" his team managed to fight off a first round scare against the Cowboys.
"That's as tight as anybody has played us all year," Self admitted. "They go zone and the looks that we were going to get more than likely...was going to be open shots on the perimeter. When their bigs went out they probably condensed it even more and we didn't make them pay."
Something the Jayhawks didn't "get" in that embarrassing loss at K-State was that defense and rebounding is critical. Yes, both areas have been good but teams are learning the way to beat KU is to spread them and drive them and lately the Jayhawks have been putting opponents on the free throw line. Still on the defensive end lately the positives have outweighed the negatives and Kansas is getting closer to the type of defense Self believes in. If the defense weren't up to par KU wouldn't have survived any of the aforementioned games.
The question now becomes since Kansas State fell victim to a hot Colorado team (87-75) will the Jayhawks feel a let down because they're now facing a team they beat two times instead of a rival they wanted desperately to face again?
I'm sure the Buffaloes took note of KU begging for a rematch with the Wildcats.
At this time of the season no matter who the opponent is it's about survive and advance or sit and watch at home. If KU gets caught looking ahead to a potential matchup with Texas or is deflated because the jersey on the other side of the court doesn't read "Kansas State", the Buffaloes are perfectly capable of the upset.