Yesterday's 85-74 loss to intra-state rival KU hurts for a lot of reasons. I hate losing. I really hate losing games when the team leads by 16 at some point in the game. I really, really hate losing to KU, especially at home.
But after a torrid start to the game, the Cats couldn't keep up the early pace and our conference winning streak has now vanished into thin air. There were a lot of reasons for this, and I hope to touch on most of them below.
What I liked...
...another solid performance by Jacob Pullen. Jake hasn't played poorly since the Texas game, and yesterday's 22 points was no exception. We need him to maintain this level of play the rest of the year.
...the play of Denis Clemente, with one obvious exception that we'll get to later. If not for the technical foul, we'd be talking about this as yet another sterling performance by Clemente, who had 26 points on 50 percent shooting. Now that he has confidence in his outside shot, he's almost impossible to defend straight up, because nobody can stay in front of this guy without fouling.
...the first 12 minutes of the game. Our defense had KU's guards sped up and out of control, which led to good looks on the offensive end of the court. We forced five turnovers in that span and jumped to a 16-point lead.
...a gritty comeback late in the game. From down 10 at 61-51, the Cats grit their teeth and cut the lead to three with 5:35 and two with 3:38 to go. Unfortunately we couldn't get a bucket at those junctures to tie or take the lead, but the guys didn't fold when KU landed its haymaker after Clemente's technical.
What I didn't like...
...Denis Clemente's momentary-but-costly loss of composure. All the papers are reporting that Clemente is claiming Morningstar elbowed him in the gut on that play. I went back to the DVR and, sorry to say, I just don't see it. No matter what happened, you absolutely have to walk away from that situation and move on. Think about the ramifications. We were down 53-51 and Clemente was fouled. If Clemente just walks away and huddles up and gets ready for the next play, Sherron Collins doesn't make two free throws and KU doesn't get a possession where Tyrel Reed knocks down a three-pointer. Who knows what we would have done on our possession. Maybe somebody hits a three, maybe Clemente drives to the hoop for a layup, or maybe we go empty. But empty sure as hell would have been better than the five-point possession KU had, not to mention the three Collins hit on their next possession. At worst, we're down five, not seven and then 10.
I'm absolutely not condemning Clemente for what happened. He's a young man who made a mistake in a heated, chippy game. I hope he learns from it, because it was a big turning point in a game we could have won.
...Jake's miss from the corner when the score was 74-70. God, I thought that shot was in.
...getting outrebounded and getting generally dominated inside. We lost the rebounding battle 29-24, although at least early in the game we did a good job of getting some offensive rebounds. And we just had no answer for Cole Aldrich, who scored 21 points yesterday, including a couple of back-breaking buckets late in the game.
...not getting looks for Fred Brown. It's unbelievable to me that he played 17 minutes and did not take a single shot from three-point range. I know Pullen and Clemente were playing well, but we have to get Brown involved to stretch defenses out a little.
...putting the ball in Dominique Sutton's hands late in the game. I understand the strategy was to get Pullen and Clemente running off picks to create some space, but Sutton's just not sufficiently experienced at handling the ball, and it showed with a costly turnover when he tried to make a pass to Darren Kent's sneakers. I'd have much rather had Fred Brown handling the ball, as the defense would have been stretched to respect his three-point shooting ability, not to mention he's at least played a little point guard this season.
...letting up on the intensity when the score was 30-14. With eight minutes left in the first half, we had a chance to put our foot down and bury the visitors, but it didn't happen. It's kind of like playing Texas Tech in football. If you sit back in Cover 2, somebody will get open and the quarterback will hit him. If you let Collins walk the ball up the court and make an easy pass to get the offense started, more often than not, KU's going to get at least a decent look. They're too well-coached not to. We had them sped up, disrupted, and rattled in front of a hostile crowd, and we didn't take advantage.
What it means and where we're going...
Obviously, the big conference winning streak is gone now. We stand 6-5 in conference play, a half-game ahead of Nebraska for fifth place. Texas' OT win over Colorado yesterday pushes them to 6-4, a half-game ahead of us in fourth place. We still own the tiebreaker over UT, and the Horns still have to play Oklahoma and KU this season.
Fortunately, Nebraska lost at Missouri yesterday, keeping the Huskers behind us in the conference standings and denying them a resume-boosting win. Also, Baylor snapped its losing streak by beating Texas A&M, dropping the Aggies to 3-7 and effectively eliminating them from NCAA Tournament contention. Baylor is still on life support at 4-7, but if they somehow ran the table to 9-7 and got hot in OKC, they could sneak in and take the last at-large. We'll take a deeper look at this sometime this week.
At this point, we must regroup quickly. I can now say that I'm very happy we have North Carolina Central coming into Manhattan midweek. NCCU is so bad that even a mediocre effort should be enough to win, although I'd like to see an angry, dominating effort a whole lot more. Regardless, it gives us a chance to work out the frustrations from yesterday before we face another conference opponent.
That next conference game will be a real gut-check as we travel to Ames to face Craig Brackins and Iowa State. While Iowa State may only be 2-8, and likely 2-9 after their midweek visit to Lawrence, they are always a dangerous team in Ames. We need to grind out a win up there and then get ready for our last shot at a resume-boosting win when we travel to Columbia.
The season's not over folks. Contrary to what KU fans think, we actually do think in terms of the entire season, rather than a single game. The NCAA Tournament got pulled a little farther away yesterday, but it's still within reach. A first-round bye in the Big 12 is still within reach. Those goals would have been a lot easier with a win yesterday, but they're still attainable.