Heartbeat of the Heartland: Freaky February Arrives in the Big 12

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Let’s just call it what it will be – Freaky February. The first Saturday of the calendar’s shortest month brought blue-blood losses by Kansas, Duke and Kentucky – all to unranked teams. The last time that happened was Feb. 15, 1969. Add in Arizona’s loss at Washington and it was the first time those four all lost on the same day as ranked teams.

In the Big 12, the final full month of the regular season promises to be an elevator/roller coaster ride. The Jayhawks’ 84-79 loss to Oklahoma State came in the “early window” of telecasts and set the tone for the kray kray day. It was also further evidence that the mystique of Allen Fieldhouse is lessened by the fact that this KU team is probably the most vulnerable and beatable of the Bill Self Era.

The Cowboys had not won a road game this season, but they became the third team to win in The Phog. One of the main reasons Kansas has won 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships is that they rarely lose at home. KU is now 3-2 at home. Oklahoma State emulated Texas Tech’s victory in Lawrence a month earlier – the Cowboys smacked KU in the face and then took their lunch money.

“It’s very frustrating,” Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham said. “You are supposed to win home games. It’s supposed to be really tough on the road. We’ve kind of got it flip-flopped this year. We are way better on the road than we have been playing at home. We’ve got to find a way to come out and crush teams like they came out and put their foot on our throat today.”

One game into the second half of the Big 12 schedule and Kansas finds itself in a first-place tie with Texas Tech; both are 7-3. The Red Raiders survived an upset bid in Lubbock last Wednesday when Texas bricked half of its 25 free throw attempts to help Texas Tech win in overtime.

Had the Red Raiders lost, KU would have started the second half of the schedule with a two-game lead. Instead, Texas Tech followed up that escape with an impressive victory at TCU Saturday to pull even in the standings.

While it appears that teams aren’t intimidated by playing at Kansas, the Big 12 foes who host the Jayhawks also get sky high for a chance to beat the bullies. KU has four road games remaining – at Baylor, at Iowa State, at Texas Tech and at Oklahoma State. If the Jayhawks are going to keep their Big 12 streak alive, they’ll need to win three of those four.

The season finale in Stillwater on March 3 could be a dilly dilly of a contest.

“I love our team. I love our guys,” Self said after Saturday’s loss. “But there’s not much margin for error out there. And when one guy doesn’t bring it or one guy has some mental lapses or whatever, it’s magnified more with us. … Hey, we could win four in a row in this league or you could lose four in a row. It’s been proven by other teams. The league is so good and if you just don’t bring it at all and the other team plays well, you’re going to get beat.”

With TCU visiting Lawrence Tuesday night, Self announced he would start two “bigs” – Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot with Lagerald Vick sent to the bench. And the KU coach didn’t shy away from being blunt when asked why his team is struggling at home.

“I think we have a couple of starters who don’t try very hard,” he said Monday. “When you look back to why we lost some games, it’s been attitude. It’s been focus. It’s been preparation. It’s been selfishness. It’s been effort. It’s been energy. It’s been intensity. It’s been competitiveness, or lack thereof.”

Oh, snap.

Line of debarkation

Free throws are most definitely not free. They are funky and fickle. Look no further than last week.

A big reason for West Virginia’s homecourt route of Kansas State was the fact that the Mountaineers set a school single-game record by making 23 of 24 attempts.

Perhaps that accuracy is not surprising – WVU is second in the Big 12 in free throw percentage. Texas is at the bottom of that statistical category and that cost the Longhorns in their overtime loss at Texas Tech. But after missing 13 at the line in Lubbock, in Saturday’s 79-74 upset of No. 12 Oklahoma, UT closed it out by making 13 in a row during the second half.

Texas freshman point guard Matt Coleman took the loss to the Red Raiders personally. With 2:33 remaining and the Longhorns leading by four, Coleman was fouled shooting a 3-pointer. He reverse hat tricked at the line, missing all three attempts. That was the turning point in the game.

When the Longhorns returned to Austin, coach Shaka Smart was only joking (we think) when he said he was worried Coleman might jump off a building. Instead, he went to the team’s practice gym to shoot free throws.

“Just reminding my head that it will never happen again,” Coleman said. “Coach asked me how I felt, and I said I felt like (bleep) if you’ll excuse my language. But coach knows I want the ball in my hands. I rock with him. He rocks with me.”

Coleman shot a couple hundred free throws, working on always making three in a row. He didn’t get back to his dorm until 4:30 a.m. Thursday – after a refueling stop at IHOP. He made all four of his attempts from the line and the Longhorns were as solid at the line against OU as they were awful against Texas Tech; they made 20-of-27.

“He showed he’s got a lot of guts,” Smart said Saturday of Coleman’s career-high 22 points. “He’s got good guts. Some guys have got smelly guts, but he’s got good ones.”

Fast breaks

  • Oklahoma’s 79-74 loss at Texas Saturday was another class in the education of Trae Young. The freshman point guard dealt 14 assists but scored “only” 19 points. He was 7-of-22 from the field and missed 12 of his 14 triple tries. Young played flustered down the stretch.His last field goal came with 10:36 to play and he was unable to run the Sooners’ offense efficiently. OU led by seven with 8:26 remaining but they committed six turnovers and had just six field goals after that – and two of those FGs were garbage buckets. 
  • One of the biggest problems OU is facing is the inconsistency of freshman forward Brady Manek. Prior to Monday night’s game with West Virginia, in five Big 12 home games, he’s averaging 16.8 points and is 20-of-30 on 3-pointers. In five conference road games, he’s averaging 5.6 points and is 4-of-20 on 3-pointers. 
  • West Virginia’s 89-51 victory over Kansas State was the Wildcats’ biggest margin of defeat since 2003. And the Mountaineers’ 38-point margin was its largest in a conference game since flogging Furman, 105-67 on Dec. 7, 1957.That was a Southern Conference game. 
  • Kansas State junior guard Barry Brown positioned himself for All-Big 12 first-team honors through the first half of conference play. After dropping 34 at Baylor – his second Big 12 game over 30 points – Brown was averaging 17.8 per game. But in his last three games, he’s barely over that average, totaling 19 points. At West Virginia Saturday, he scored one point on three shots.“He lost a little bit of confidence,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “He was on the top of the world playing as good as anybody, not in the league but in the country.” 
  • Oklahoma State’s victory at Kansas came five years and one day after Marcus Smart punctuated a Cowboys’ victory with a celebratory backflip. First-year OSU coach Mike Boynton did something that legendary coach Eddie Sutton never did as Oklahoma State’s coach – he was 0-11 coaching the Cowboys in The Phog.“I want our guys to focus on the moment,” Boynton said. “Right now, they need to enjoy this win. Not many people have come in here and done that.”