Heartbeat of the Heartland: Kansas Jayhawks Get Tough in Critical Big 12 Tilt

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Two weeks from reaching the halfway point of Big 12 play and it’s clear that the competition is as serious as a heart attack. And the games might actually cause some angina.

Going into Monday’s games, 15 of 25 Big 12 games had been decided by six or fewer points. Five games had gone overtime (one to double OT). The average victory margin -7.7 points. That’s the lowest among the Big Boy leagues and is second nationally to the Horizon League at 7.6 points.

Kansas’ Big Monday game at West Virginia fit the profile. The Jayhawks unlikely prevailed, overcoming a 16-point deficit to post a 71-66 victory. The Jayhawks are 5-1 in the Big 12 and outscoring their conference foes by a whopping 1.7 points per 100 possessions. Victories in the Big 12 go to the strong.

“They just out-toughed us,” said WVU Bob Huggins, who values toughness above all else. “They just wanted it more than we did.”

The Mountaineers were No. 2 in the country with a 15-game winning streak before losing by a point at Texas Tech, then followed that up by disappointing a geeked-up sellout crowd Monday night. There isn’t enough psychotropic medication to control the mood swings in the Big 12. Three days, two games, two losses and it’s sudden change.

“The fall from up there (No. 2), boy, that fall’s a b*tch,” Huggins said. “That fall’s hard. And I told them that’s what we’re getting ready to do.”

Saturday’s five Big 12 games were decided by a total of 18 points and three came down to a single point. The largest lead in any of the five games was 12 points by Texas at Oklahoma State … and the Longhorns lost. The five games were tied 17 times and there were 53 lead changes. Kansas State had the final possession with a chance to win at Kansas. Oklahoma State had the final possession and scored to make the Longhorns’ return trip to Austin exceedingly painful.

Heading into this week, there were four teams tied for first place at 4-1. Three teams were tied at 2-3 and three at 1-4. Texas could be 4-1 but went scoreless over the last 5:03 in a loss at Baylor and against the Cowboys only scored three points in the last 6:33.

TCU, picked to finished third in the coaches’ preseason poll, finds itself in a three-way tie in the basement with a 1-4 record. The Frogs have lost twice to No. 4 Oklahoma by a total of six points (one of those losses in overtime on the road) and lost at home to Kansas by four points. TCU lost at Texas, 99-98, in double overtime last week when sophomore guard Jaylen Fisher’s driving layup rolled off the rim. The Frogs’ only Big 12 victory was by three points at Baylor … in overtime.

The eye test indicates that TCU has the ingredients of a team that can be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The challenge will be digging out of a “minus three” hole in the standings and finishing 9-9 or 8-10 in Big 12 play.

“I am positive without a shadow of a doubt that we are as good as anybody,” TCU coach Jamie Dixon said after Saturday’s loss. “I think we’re going to show it down the road here.”

The margin for error and the margin of victory figures to remain the same for every Big 12 team – razor thin.

Andrew Jones battling leukemia

For three days, Shaka Smart carried an awful secret. On Friday, Jan. 5, he learned that Texas sophomore guard Andrew Jones had been diagnosed with leukemia. Jones had missed four games with a broken wrist but when that injury healed he had no energy when he returned to practices and games. He didn’t make the 90-mile trip to Waco for the Longhorns’ game with Baylor on Jan. 6.

The night before last Wednesday’s home game against TCU, Smart and his staff had a team meeting and broke the news. The UT coach heard and saw his players crying, sobbing and wailing.

There are several forms of leukemia but as of yet the family has asked for privacy and has not shared any details of Jones’ diagnosis. Jones is being treated at an undisclosed Austin-area hospital. Smart has tried to make daily visits.

“He’s got an incredible spirit, and he’s a guy that is a great fighter and it really provides a sense of perspective and understanding for me,” Smart told the Austin American-Statesman.

The school has established an NCAA-approved fund-raising site to help with the Jones’ family’s expenses. As of Monday afternoon, approximately 1,200 donors have pledged nearly $94,000.

“The level of support that people have provided, it just says a lot about Texas and UT and how much people care about the student-athletes that make this place athletically what it is,” Smart said.

A fine whine

Kansas State had a great opportunity to win at Kansas Saturday. The Wildcats had the final possession, trailing 73-72 and 15 seconds on the clock. But instead of running the play called which was designed to go to Dean Wade – who was open after setting a screen – junior guard Barry Brown dribbled himself into a forced 3-pointer that missed.

A year ago in Allen Fieldhouse, Wade missed a jumper that would have given the Wildcats the lead in a tie game. KU’s Svi Mykhailuk scored the winning layup at the buzzer – thanks to the fact the Big 12 officiating crew missed his three-step travel before the shot.

Leading by two with 6:34 to play, K-State’s Makol Mawein swatted away a layup attempt by KU’s Malik Newman. Referee Mike Stuart whistled the Wildcats’ Cartier Diarra with a technical foul. The Jayhawks’ Devonte’ Graham made both free throws.

After the technical foul, K-State had three-point leads on three different occasions but couldn’t expand those advantages or close the deal. The Wildcats played good enough to lose. Coach Bruce Weber walked to the edge of being fined while complaining about the officiating.

“I’m really disappointed in some of the calls,” he said. “But we were all here last year, and same thing. … I’m disappointed in some of the calls. I hope you guys are, too. … Ask Fran Fraschilla about it! He can speak for us!”

Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star did just that. He called and interviewed Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst who worked the game. Your Veteran Scribe agrees with his take.

Credit K-State athletic director Gene Taylor with saying what many are thinking.

“I wish he wouldn’t have gone there, but he was asked a question and he was upset with some of the calls,” he said on a local radio station Monday. “I wish I would have visited with him a little more about it before the press conference.”

The weekly Trae Young report

Your Veteran Scribe is contractually obligated to include updates on the numbing numbers being compiled by Oklahoma freshman Trae Young.

  • Young is just the second player in Big 12 history to record multiple games of 40-plus points in the same season. Kansas State’s Michael Beasley had three in 2007-08.
  • In Saturday’s overtime defeat of TCU, Young tied his career high with 43 points with 11 rebounds and seven assists. He was 10-of-18 from 3-point range, falling one triple short of equaling the school single-game record. He’s the only major-conference player in the last 20 years with 40 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 threes in a single game.
  • Conference weekly honors aren’t much more than participation ribbons. That being said, Young was named Big 12 player of the week (selected by a panel of media voters) for the sixth time this season. The matches the record set by OU’s Blake Griffin in 2008-09. Griffin also has the career record for POW awards with eight. Young could quite likely set records for weekly and career awards this season.
  • Young has scored 481 points in 16 games – about half a season. The Big 12 single-season freshman scoring record is 903 by Kevin Durant in 2007 and the single-season record for points is 925 by Buddy Hield in 2016. The NCAA single-season record for a freshman is 965 points by LSU’s Chris Jackson in 1989. Young has 160 assists. The freshman record is 273 by Texas’ T.J. Ford in 2002 and the single-season assists record is 299 by Doug Gottlieb in 1999. The NCAA single-season record for a freshman is 288 assists by Bobby Hurley in 1990.