LAWRENCE (TNS) — For the past seven days, during brief film sessions and two-a-day practices and interactions on Twitter and Instagram, the Kansas Jayhawks kept being reminded of one rather loaded word.
Yes, you remember Temple, right? Eight days ago, on a chilly night in Philadelphia, the Jayhawks left the Wells Fargo Center in the cover of darkness after suffering the indignity of a 25-point loss. The KU big men converted just two buckets in 40 minutes. The Owls shot better than 58 percent from the floor.
It was the sort of loss — a metaphorical pile-driver from the top rope — that Bill Self has rarely had to worry about during his 12 seasons at Kansas. Because, well, those are the sort of losses that never happen to Kansas. In the days after the defeat, Self returned home to Oklahoma for Christmas and tried to enjoy the holiday break with family.
His team, Self would say four days later, needed to play with more energy and more passion and more veteran poise. But that loss in Philadelphia? That wasn’t the real Kansas.
On Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas finally had an opportunity to move past a forgettable night at Temple. It would come in the form of a matchup with a Kent State program that figured to be nothing more than some post-Christmas cupcake. If the Jayhawks’ big men struggle against length — and they have — perhaps they would find the Golden Flashes’ front line a little more manageable. If the KU defense needed to regain its mojo, well, maybe Kent State was the right opponent.
Well, that was the idea. It took more than 30 minutes for No. 13 Kansas to fully find itself on Tuesday night, but by the end of a 78-62 victory, the Jayhawks looked like a more fully-functional unit.
Freshman forward Cliff Alexander, who had gone without a field goal against Temple, broke out in a big way, throwing down a couple of emphatic dunks and scoring eight straight points as the Jayhawks pulled away in the final stretch of the second half.
Alexander, a 6-foot-8 power forward, had been one of the Jayhawks’ most confounding players during the last three weeks. A former top-five recruit, Alexander appeared poised for a breakout. And then, somehow, he had gone without a field goal in two of Kansas’ last three games and managed just one field-goal attempt in the Jayhawks’ loss at Temple. Self said Alexander had been bothered by an assortment of nagging injuries — a rolled ankle, a bone bruise in his shin — and certainly, the bullish forward appeared to lack some of his trademark bounce.
Then came Tuesday.
By the time Alexander dropped in his first bucket with more than eight minutes left, he appeared ready to detonate.
If Alexander’s surge was a welcome sight for Self, then so was Kelly Oubre’s offensive performance. Oubre, a 6-foot-7 freshman swingman, finished with a game-high 20 points while hitting his first six shots in the first half. Oubre’s early offense kept Kansas in the game while the rest of the team plodded through an ugly first half.
The Jayhawks trailed 26-21 at one point, and then 28-25 with more than six minutes left in the first half. For stretches, Kansas had no way to defend Kent State forward Jimmy Hall, who finished the half with 12 points on six-of-seven shooting.
But the Jayhawks would settle down in the final minutes, finishing the half on an 18-7 run. Perry Ellis, who would finish with 15 points, found an offensive rhythm after making just three of his first nine shots from the field.
It was not vintage Ellis, who was responsible for the majority of Kent State’s five blocked shots in the first half. But it was a step forward after the 6-foot-8 forward’s one-of-10 performance against Temple.
Perhaps that was Tuesday night for Kansas — a small step forward after a week off for Christmas. If nothing else, the Jayhawks could move on from Temple.