There are going to be nights like this. Where the Kansas Jayhawks are on the road, and the home team is doing things it hasn’t done all season. The whistles all seem to go the other way, and coach Bill Self is looking down the bench for the player who will help power them through to victory.
If the No. 3 Jayhawks’ 86-67 loss Tuesday at Oklahoma State is any indication, they are still looking for that player.
Look, let’s not overreact here. Kansas is still one of the few very good teams in a year full of good-but-not-great ones. The Jayhawks’ third straight loss in Stillwater, Oklahoma, won’t derail their quest for a 12th straight Big 12 crown and doesn't mean they’re somehow not a Final Four contender.
But it does raise a big question.
Look around at the other top teams in the nation. Almost all of them have a guy. When Oklahoma needs a basket, it’s going to Buddy Hield. North Carolina has Marcus Paige. Maryland has Melo Trimble. Michigan State has Denzel Valentine.
Who’s that guy for Kansas?
Better yet, will someone emerge this season to assume that role?
They certainly needed someone to come through when Oklahoma State was hitting 3-pointers with an accuracy it hadn’t enjoyed this season. The Cowboys, who were averaging 33 percent from behind the arc, made 11 of 21 attempts against the Jayhawks.
This was Kansas' second straight road loss, and both games played out in a similar fashion -- with Kansas not being able to match its opponent's fight. Kansas had no answer, collectively or individually.
Maybe it’s partly because the Jayhawks have such balance and depth that no one has ever separated themselves from the pack.
Four players average in double figures, including Frank Mason III, who may be the team's most valuable player. Mason was a scoring point guard who began to make his teammates better toward the end of last season. But over the past three games, he has been in an offensive funk, and when he’s not scoring, it affects the rest of his game. Of the 34 turnovers Mason has committed this season, 16 have come in the past five games. Over that same span, he has shot just 32 percent from the floor.
Mason scored a team-high 14 points against Oklahoma State, but he finished with zero assists.
Perry Ellis, the senior forward who is the focus of many a joke about how long he has been playing in Lawrence, Kansas, has the credentials to be that guy. He leads the team in scoring (15.8) and rebounding (6.8), has started every game and is the most experienced player on the roster. He’s the guy who gets a little extra applause when the starting lineup is announced in Allen Fieldhouse, because he’s a native of Kansas and it means something that he stayed close.
Ellis, who shot just 3-of-10 against the Cowboys and had 13 points and three rebounds, isn’t the type to get teammates riled up when they’re playing as listless as they did through most of Tuesday night. Ellis is not going to post up, demand the ball and have his teammates give it to him because they’re intimidated.
Ellis tries to lead by example, and while there’s certainly a place for that, it doesn’t tend to work well in the heat of the game.
Wayne Selden Jr. would seem like a possibility, as well. The junior guard has undeniable skill and at times looks like the best player on the floor -- no matter who else is on the floor.
But Selden’s play can still leave you wanting more. Tuesday night's performance was one such example. Selden picked up two fouls in the first half and never settled into a groove, finishing with a season-low seven points.
Self seemed to know that his team needed a spark. He started highly touted freshman Cheick Diallo for the first time this season to shake things up. But that didn't work. Diallo played just 13 minutes, and his time in the lineup seemed to help inspire no one.
Having depth is a great luxury, and the Jayhawks will win a lot more games this season because of it. But Kansas will still be searching for the guy when, inevitably, it has another night like this one.