LAWRENCE, Kan. — Naadir Tharpe exited Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon in a strut after KU's 80-78 win over eighth-ranked Oklahoma State. He took one big step to his right and cupped his hand over his right ear. He took another big step to the left and did the same.
It was one of those moves you see in WWE wrestling.
Poetic after what took place since Marcus Smart finished off the Jayhawks a year ago with a backflip on their home court.
"I still remember those backflips," Tharpe told me before the season at Big 12 media days. "Backflip on our floor. You don't forget that."
The Jayhawks' roster has turned over, but since Smart returned, no one would let them forget about what the Oklahoma State star was able to do last year and what he might be able to do this year: End KU's streak of Big 12 titles at nine.
The Cowboys were reminded of those titles as they took the floor on Saturday with the screens that line Naismith Court flashing the nine rings.
Both teams got worked up enough that by the final buzzer they had combined for seven technicals.
"They did a lot of talking, a lot of shoving," Tharpe said. "We came back and just attacked them."
If you're looking for a difference between the Kansas team that lost four nonconference games and the one that is off to a perfect 4-0 start in the Big 12, the fact that it is no longer playing on its heels would be a good place to start.
The Jayhawks were passive and struggled early in the year against zone defense. The Cowboys threw a zone at them in 24 half-court possessions in the first half, and they scored 35 points on those possessions.
Bill Self's roster is oozing with talent and the Cowboys were drowning in it down 17 at halftime.
"I don't know a team that's more talented in the country as deep as they are," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "They just keep bringing them in."
Ford would have probably felt pretty good about his chances if you had told him before the game that KU's freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins would score three points, second-leading scorer Perry Ellis would score six and starting guard Wayne Selden, who came in averaging 17 points in Big 12 play, would score nine points and turn it over five times.
"Wiggs had the worst game he's had all year," Self said. "Perry had as bad a game as he's had all year. Wayne had as bad as game as he's had in a long time."
All that hardly made Self sweat. He was able to sit Wiggins and Ellis down the stretch and turned to what has become his other star, Joel Embiid.
Embiid nearly put up a triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks.
The big man from Cameroon is on the verge of displacing Wiggins as the most-talked about Jayhawk.
"Goodness, he's talented," Ford said. "He's good and they've got so many good basketball players. So deep."
KU's bench scored 28 points, and the often-forgotten man in KU's starting five, Tharpe, buried the Cowboys with big shot after big shot on his way to 21 points.
"Naadir played great," Self said. "Every time they got real close, he had an answer."
Tharpe made enough shots in the second half to help Kansas withstand 14 second-half turnovers that had a lot to do the youth factor that still rears its head from time to time.
"These guys haven't played in these types of games," Tharpe said. "These guys don't really know how much it really means, but they're starting to understand."
It was hard not to when it came to the Cowboys. Smart not only gave the Jayhawks some motivation with his backflip, but he also questioned the hype surrounding Wiggins in the preseason.
Smart called this loss a "moral victory" because his team was able to come back in the second half with a shot to tie it on the final possession, a shot that Le'Bryan Nash was not able to get off.
The Cowboys may be close from a talent standpoint with at least three pros in their starting lineup—Smart, Markel Brown and Nash—but they're in a familiar position, still looking up at the Jayhawks and already two games behind in the Big 12 standings.
Back at Big 12 media days in October, Brown looked across the room at the parade of media around the Jayhawks that always seems to follow them.
"Yeah, we want that," he told Bleacher Report. "We wouldn't mind having that around this program at all."
Saturday was put up or shut up time, in the Jayhawks' eyes. And they were the ones that got to strut off their court this time around.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!