Kansas coach Bill Self returned to the press conference room at Mizzou Arena dejected and worn out.
His team had just squandered a seven-point lead with 30 seconds left in regulation, eventually losing to the Tigers 89-86 in overtime.
This wasn’t a familiar situation for Self or the Jayhawks men’s basketball team.
Self’s Jayhawks slipped to 1-2 in the Big 12 Conference, and suddenly their home-opening loss to Kansas State, which snapped a 31-game winning streak against the Wildcats, wasn’t considered just another uncharacteristic bump in the road. This was a young team veering off course.
After Self spoke, former Missouri coach Quin Snyder walked into the room with a sense of vindication. After answering questions concerning his job status, the tenor of the room was about his team and their surprising 3-1 start in conference.
Much has changed since the rivals’ Jan. 16 game.
The Jayhawks have grown as a unit since their meltdown against Missouri, reeling off eight straight conference wins en route to second place in the Big 12.
The Tigers have won just one game, 74-71 Sunday against Kansas State, and are adjusting to life after Snyder under the direction of interim coach Melvin Watkins.
Aside from putting together a game plan to beat No. 22 Kansas (18-6, 9-2), Watkins has guided the Tigers through practice the past four days amid a swirl of speculation about the way that Snyder’s departure came about.
“Practice has been pretty good, I think the kids have tried to focus as best they can and that’s something we wanted them to do and they’ve responded to that,” Watkins said Thursday. “Once again, though I still think at times it’s been a difficult time for them and no doubt about that, no way of getting around that, but to the credit of those young kids, they’ve at least come out and tried to give us what we’ve needed in practice to try to get better.”
Slowing the fast-paced Jayhawks will be a key for Missouri (11-11, 4-7) to mount another upset at 2:45 p.m. Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse.
Watkins said better shot selection and reducing turnovers will be essential in keeping the Jayhawks from getting easy baskets in transition.
Despite having just three upperclassmen, the Jayhawks have recovered from their early-season swoon, relying heavily on three freshmen: Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Julian Wright.
Rush leads the Jayhawks in scoring at 14.2 points per game. Chalmers is second at 10.7 points and leads the Jayhawks in assists.
“They’re maybe playing the best in the Big 12,” Watkins said. “Those young kids have grown up now and, you know, seem to be really enjoying playing with each other and kind of figuring out some things out about each other’s game and you have to give them credit. Coach Self over there has done a great job with this young group of talented players.”
A win for the Tigers would mark the first time they have swept the Jayhawks since 1994, when the Tigers went 14-0 in the Big Eight conference under coach Norm Stewart.