LAWRENCE, Kans. -- Once upon a time, a long three weeks ago, the Kansas basketball team kept hearing the same question:
What’s wrong with the Jayhawks?
KU, already dogged by two losses in December, gave up their home-court win streak against nonconference opponents by losing to San Diego State. The uber-talented, heavily hyped Jayhawks continued to fall from their preseason No. 5 perch, nose-diving to No. 18.
They looked exactly like what they were -- young, inexperienced and maybe even a little in over their heads.
Now, Kansas is starting to look exactly like what everyone thought it would be this season -- a Final Four team.
The Jayhawks topped Oklahoma State 80-78 in a game that could be best described as bizarre. Kansas looked unbeatable in the first half and unglued in the second; the Cowboys were unglued in the first, nearly unbeatable in the second, and the officials got to dig into their grab bag of calls, whistling six technical fouls, a double foul and a flagrant 1 foul (they missed hitting for the cycle by a flagrant 2).
Andrew Wiggins scored three points, took five shots and generally spent the better part of his 23 minutes on the court in some sort of invisibility cloak.
The Cowboys trailed by as many as 19 and still had a chance to win at the end.
It all made no sense and yet in the bigger picture it makes perfect sense because Kansas is doing what good teams, special teams, Final Four teams do: finding ways to win.
String this W against Oklahoma State alongside a win at Iowa State and a win at home against Kansas State and the Jayhawks are now the first team to win three consecutive games against ranked opponents in the regular season since Louisville in 2009.
“We weren’t ready to be much better than our record was in the nonconference,” coach Bill Self said. “Maybe we could have been 10-3 or maybe 11-2, but we were about where we deserved. But all these guys hear is, ‘What’s wrong with us?’ There was nothing wrong with us. We had to figure out how to play and how to win.”
Self won’t say the riddle is solved. No coach in his right mind would, not at least in January. And after the second half, when Kansas tried to undo all the really good it did, he’s got cinematic evidence of the Jayhawk’s shortcomings to share with his team.
But even he knows he’s got something going here.
Two months ago, Self yanked Naadir Tharpe out of the starting lineup after a dud of a run in Atlantis. Against Oklahoma State, Tharpe had 21 points and six assists, and he's averaging 16 and six over the past three games.
Three months ago, Joel Embiid was the other freshman on the Kansas roster. Now NBA teams are practically salivating over the big man, who just missed a triple double against the Cowboys, finishing with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks.
No freshman in Big 12 history has ever done that.
Not Michael Beasley. Not Kevin Durant.
Three months ago, if Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr. barely scored, the Jayhawks wouldn’t win. Against Oklahoma State, Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor made up for them with 17 points combined.
And remember, Black and Traylor come off the bench for Kansas because Self has such a ridiculous amount of riches he can afford to make them his subs.
“I’m not sure there’s a team in the country with more talent and more depth than them and when you let them play to their strengths -- when Embiid and Black are dunking and Tharpe is hitting 3s, you’re in trouble,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said.
And then Ford whistled. Not a catcall sort of whistle, but a slow, drawn out, "oh my goodness" appreciation tweet.
The Jayhawks were that good -- silly good, really.
Now those who own half-empty chalices will point out that Kansas was as bad in the second half as it was good in the first and not be inaccurate. Oklahoma State outscored KU 48-33, and the Jayhawks decided throwing the ball cross-court to no one was a terrific idea.
But he did and it didn’t and here we are.
And here is that part of the season where we are trying to figure out just which tournament teams we trust and which we don’t. What teams not only have the pieces to succeed, but are actually starting to fit them together? What teams look like smart picks for a deep March run?
Check Kansas in every box.
“I see everybody smiling,” Tharpe said. “You know, you see a play happen when there’s a timeout and everybody is getting off the bench and everybody’s excited. I think everybody is just starting to understand this is how Kansas basketball is supposed to be played.”
Now a lot can and will happen between now and the final game at Jerry’s Arlington Palace. Louisville, remember, looked as good as did last January and that seemed to work out all right.
Heck, Baylor could beat the Jayhawks on Monday night. They aren’t foolproof just yet.
But there’s less a sense of foreboding over that sort of stumble as there was once upon a time, a long, long three weeks ago.
No one is wondering what’s wrong with Kansas.
Instead it appears the Jayhawks might be on the road to a happy ending.