LAWRENCE, Kan. — Wayne Selden sprung from his seat, hopped over his chair and ran down the Allen Fieldhouse aisle waving a towel.
Naadir Tharpe danced in front of the bench, while the rest of the Kansas Jayhawks draped their arms over each other’s necks, hugging and whooping in disbelief.
All because of Tarik Black.
Seconds earlier, Black—a Memphis transfer who has known his KU teammates for all of eight months—uncorked one of the most vicious dunks in recent school memory, a thunderbolt from the left baseline on which he elevated, hung in the air and then elevated again before throwing the ball through the net.
Screams from the sold-out crowd of 16,300 rattled the Allen Fieldhouse floor, and TV announcers and analysts on Twitter began comparing Black’s flush to ones by Blake Griffin and Dr. J.
Still, for Black, nothing was as uplifting as seeing his teammates celebrate his dunk near the bench in the final moments of Kansas’ 85-54 victory over Texas.
“Those are my brothers,” Black said. “I love them to death.There is no animosity in our locker room. Everyone wants to see each other shine. That’s what makes us special.”
Less than a month before the NCAA tournament, Jayhawks coach Bill Self appears to have achieved another milestone in what is already a Hall of Fame-caliber career. Somehow he’s taken a roster filled with six freshmen and five new starters and molded it into a selfless, cohesive unit that is one win away from winning its 10th straight Big 12 title.
But there’s no need to stop there.
When the Jayhawks display the same type of chemistry on the court as they do off of it, they’re the best team in America. Kansas may not look like the country’s top squad every time it steps on the court.
But the Jayhawks’ A-game vs. anyone else’s A-game? Give me Kansas every time. Syracuse, Florida, Duke, Wichita State...none of them are capable of playing at a level as high as the one Self’s squad displayed Saturday night.
“At the end,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said, “I think they can be the best team in the country.”
Self didn’t try to downplay the subject.
“When we click on all cylinders,” he said, “we can play with anybody.”
That was certainly the case Saturday.
Just three weeks removed from a 12-point loss to Texas in Austin, the Jayhawks completely embarrassed the 19th-ranked Longhorns in Saturday’s rematch. Kansas led 46-18 after a first half in which it outshot its opponent 63 percent compared to 20.7 percent.
Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor, who had 23 points against KU in the first meeting, scored only five Saturday on 1-of-14 shooting.
“I talk about our guys not being as tough as I’d like them to be,” Self said, “and they’re not. But they are prideful. Texas whipped us down there the first time. I said all along, this game wasn’t as much about the league race as it was playing Texas. Our guys bought into that.”
The victory gave No. 8 Kansas a 21-6 record overall and a 12-2 mark in the Big 12, while Texas fell to 20-7 and 9-5. Barnes said his team was so bad that Topeka YMCA would’ve given the Jayhawks a better game Saturday, but he also realized Kansas had a lot to do with the Longhorns’ poor showing.
“We took it to them,” said freshman wing Andrew Wiggins, who scored a team-high 21 points. “Every minute on the floor, we played hard.”
The effort was easily Kansas’ most complete and impressive of the season. And it was even more gratifying considering the journey the Jayhawks traveled to reach the magical level they performed at Saturday.
Now in his 11th season in Lawrence, Self has never coached this type of team. Never has Kansas had this many one-and-done-caliber players on one roster. Never have the Jayhawks featured this much youth.
Self knew there would be road bumps, and he cautioned fans of them entering the season. There would be setbacks early, he said, and that proved true in nonconference losses against Florida, Villanova, San Diego State and Colorado. And there would be moments when his inexperienced players became rattled on the road or didn’t work hard enough on the defensive end.
That’s happened twice this month in losses at Texas and Kansas State.
In the end, though, Self believed the Jayhawks would be at their best when it mattered most, that they’d have been hardened by the nation’s toughest schedule, primed for the postseason and, hopefully, a run at the school’s first NCAA title since 2008.
After Saturday, that appears to be the case.
“Sometimes,” Self said, “you read too much into it, where when you play well, people say, ‘They’re on a roll now.’ I think a roll means you do it over a period of time. It remains to be see if we’re on a roll yet.”
Indeed, elated as he was with Saturday’s victory, Self was quick to remind folks about what happened four days earlier in Lubbock, when the Jayhawks struggled to score and needed a basket from Wiggins in the final seconds to escape with a one-point win against Texas Tech.
Still, frustrating as some aspects of that game may have been, Self said it also gave him hope that his squad was developing the physical and mental toughness it had lacked early in the season.
The Jayhawks found a way to win on a night when they didn’t play well. That, he’s always said, is the mark of a good team.
“We want to play at this level every night,” Black said after Saturday’s win over Texas. “But realistically and humanly, we’re not going to do that. There are going to be nights where things don’t go as well as they can go.”
The Jayhawks have proven now that they can win in both situations, although they hope to avoid the latter as much as possible. Every season there comes a time—a moment, a game—when the best teams shift into a higher gear and never look back.
Kansas is hoping that time came Saturday.
“There’s a lot that needs to happen for us to go on a roll, but tonight I was encouraged that that could potentially happen.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.
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