Kansas survived a late charge from Texas A&M on Wednesday night to maintain their one game lead in the Big 12 standings. Here are five observations from the Jayhawks’ victory over the Aggies.
1) Elijah Rises Up: Elijah Johnson had his best scoring performance since conference play began, as he put up 21 points against the Aggies. The Jayhawks needed it, especially in the first half, when Thomas Robinson failed to make a single field goal. Johnson has been a bit of a disappointment on the offensive end of the floor for most of the season, averaging under nine points per game, and shooting a woeful 29% from beyond the arc. Despite his shooing struggles, Johnson has made himself into a very useful defender, so he has still been a valuable player. But if he can step forward as another legitimate scoring threat for Kansas, the Jayhawks will be even more dangerous in March. For me, the biggest key for Johnson continues to be his aggressiveness. He still fired up seven three-pointers against A&M, but I thought that he was more assertive in taking the ball to the basket. Johnson’s got the athleticism to get to the rim, and getting some easy shots early will likely make it easier for him to knock down some of those outside shots.
2) When your best players make your worst decisions…If there is one major concern that I have for this Kansas team going forward, this would be it. More than lack of depth, more than inconsistent outside shooting. This team will largely go as far as Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor will take them. On balance, KU’s dynamic duo has shown that they can take this team pretty darn far. Under the leadership of Robinson and Taylor, KU currently stands alone in first place atop the Big 12 standings, and in position to seize another number one seed in the NCAA tournament. So, any criticism of the two needs to be put in proper context. With that in mind, time for the criticism. After Wednesday’s game, Bill Self said, “We were making basketball plays experienced guys should never make. When you make plays you know nobody wants you to make and it doesn’t bother you, that’s a bad sign for a basketball team. It didn’t seem it bothered us much tonight.” I can’t be sure what specific plays Self was talking about, but I can make a couple of good guesses. In addition to some questionable shot selection down the stretch, KU’s two best players made the two biggest mistakes of the game. With 7:56 to play in the game, Taylor committed his fourth personal foul with a reach-in. Taylor went to the bench at that point, with Kansas leading by 14 points. By the time he reentered the game, the lead was down to 6. Bill Self was highly critical of Taylor for picking up that silly foul. The other obvious mistake was the Technical foul by Thomas Robinson with 40 seconds to play. The Jayhawks were up by 6 points at that time, and Robinson dove after a loose ball. He swung his arms in frustration after getting tied up with a couple of Aggies. The technical was his fifth foul, and after hitting both free throws, A&M was suddenly within 4 points. Bill Self called it “as bad of a play as I’ve seen.” It could have been a play that cost Kansas the game, and therefore sole possession of first place in the Big 12. It’s not the type of play that a Player of the Year makes.
3) Is Mariano Rivera available? There’s no doubt that the Jayhawks could use a closer, especially on the road. Kansas failed to protect late leads at Iowa State and Missouri. They had to hold on for dear life to finish off wins at Kansas State and Texas A&M. On Wednesday night, the Jayhawks had a 21-point lead with 13: 25 to play. They still had an 18-point lead with under seven minutes to play, yet the Aggies forced Kansas to sweat out the final minutes of the game, getting as close as four points down the stretch. As the Jayhawks continued to miss free throws in crunch time, you couldn’t help but wonder if “ghosts of blown leads past” were haunting them. This, of course, is another cause for anxiety from many of the KU fans I see. Will the Jayhawks’ struggles to close out late game leads come back to bite them in March? Only time will tell. But, as I think back on most of the March upsets that have plagued the Jayhawks over the years, it seems to me that Kansas typical has fallen behind early, only to make a furious comeback that falls short in the end. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’d be just fine with the idea of Kansas building big leads early on. I’ll worry about them protecting those leads when the time comes.
4) T-Rob must overcome frustrations: Thomas Robinson is a great player. As a great player, he must continuously deal with the frustration that every opponent makes it priority number one to slow him down. On Wednesday night, Texas A&M was able to neutralize him by doubling him as soon as he touched the ball. Still, Kansas was able to build a 20-point lead because other players (namely Elijah Johnson) were able to step up and take advantage of the extra attention that A&M was focusing on Robinson. Despite the lead, it appeared to me that Robinson was frustrated with his own lack of point production. This is understandable, but I think it’s something that Robinson needs to rise above, for his own good. It appeared to me that Robinson allowed the frustration to turn into some poor decisions on the floor, the technical foul at the top of the list. Now that teams have seen that he can loose his cool, you can bet that they will continue to try to get under his skin.
5) We can finally focus on Saturday: Finally, there are no games standing between us and the final Border Showdown at Allen Fieldhouse. We’ve all been peaking over the horizon, looking past games that were still in front of us on the schedule, anticipating this matchup. Finally, there’s no threat of distraction. For the next two days, nothing matters but Missouri and Kansas. It’s a shame that this rivalry is coming to an end. Even if these two schools can recover from the wounds of conference realignment and agree to play again in the future, and I hope that they do someday, who are we kidding? It’ll never be like this again. It just can’t be. There’s nothing we can do about that sad fact other than enjoy every moment of this showdown from now until the final horn sounds on Saturday.
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