LAWRENCE, KAN. -- When Bill Self met Thad Matta for their pregame pleasantries on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, Matta said he wished Self a merry Christmas.
Self's version: "There could have been a couple choice words in there describing the holiday."
Matta would have preferred to make the trip to Lawrence this holiday season with Jared Sullinger in the lineup -- he chose, instead, to protect his star's ailing back -- but to say Kansas' 78-67 win was gift-wrapped would diminish what was KU's most complete performance to date. Mostly because of the Jayhawks' giving spirit (18 turnovers), the Buckeyes kept it close, but there was never any doubt who would win. And despite their flaws, the Jayhawks may be better than public perception.
The numbers from Ken Pomeroy say Kansas is the sixth-best team in the country. The humans behind the two major national polls rank KU 13th. Take a poll of KU fans and they don't believe this team is close to what they've been the past few years.
Self has influenced the views of Kansas observers as much as anyone, blasting his team regularly in the last month for their turnover-prone ways. The Jayhawks have gone six straight games turning over the ball on more than 20 percent of their possessions. Self has described such performances as "careless," "lackadaisical," and "pitiful." After the Long Beach State game last Tuesday, he said: "We don't pass it real well, we don't catch it real well and we don't see real well."
The main whipping boy in Lawrence has been senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who throughout his career has given Kansas fans ample on- and off-court reasons to shake their heads. The latest letdown has been his 32 turnovers in the last five games. With each additional turnover, a collective groan is heard round Allen Fieldhouse.
Even with those mistakes, however, Taylor has added value to KU's offense. He's averaging a career-best 16 points, shooting 57 percent from outside (he's Self's most consistent shooter) and has lifted the Jayhawk offense from numerous dry spells. When KU labored through a first half scoring 24 points against South Florida on December 3, it was Taylor who ignited the offense with 20 second-half points.
If that weren't enough to prove his worth, Taylor may have finally earned the everlasting respect of KU fans and his coach for what he did the last week.
Taylor tore his meniscus and sprained his medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a practice before the Long Beach State game on Tuesday. Coach Bill Self told the media that Taylor tweaked his knee, but he did not let on how hurt Taylor really was. Taylor refused to miss the Ohio State game and put off surgery until Sunday, giving himself a chance to possibly not miss a game. The team is off until a December 19 trip to Kansas City to play Davidson, and Self says Taylor's recovery time will be one to three weeks.
Self tried to give Taylor a break against Long Beach State by bringing him off the bench, but with Elijah Johnson struggling and in foul trouble, Taylor was forced to play 34 minutes. He started on Saturday and played 35 minutes, and with his explosiveness negated by his injury, Taylor turned into a facilitator. He finished with a career-high 13 assists, chipped in nine points and the one caveat to his inspired performance was his seven turnovers.
"I can get on Ty, because he will turn it over every now and again," Self said. "But where would we be without him? We don't win against Long Beach unless he plays and we certainly don't win the game tonight unless he plays. I thought that everybody should appreciate how bad he wanted to be out there. He's definitely not 100 percent, never once complained, never once said he was hurt."
KU's offense has had to rely a lot on Taylor and Thomas Robinson, as both stars use 27 percent of the team's possessions. The Jayhawks have seen mixed results from their bench, and Johnson, the team's third-leading scorer, has been in a shooting slump. Since KU returned from Maui, Johnson had made only two of 14 threes and scored 11 points in three contests going into the Ohio State game.
Self has said that Johnson's been shooting great in practice, but other than a 23-point effort against UCLA in Maui, he'd made just 22 percent of his threes going into Saturday. So if you were watching KU for the first time against Ohio State, you would have had no idea the junior guard had been struggling. He confidently drained five of seven threes and helped KU build an early cushion with four treys in the first half. For the first time all season, KU shot better than 50 percent (nine of 17) from outside.
"I never worried about my shot," Johnson said. "I felt like I shot it like I shot it the last couple of games. This time it just went in and got me going."
Johnson's performance was not all that shocking. He was a five-star recruit who has had to wait his turn and has shown flashes before. What was shocking for Self and the Jayhawks was the play of Kevin Young off the bench.
A transfer from Loyola Marymount, Young has been on the fringe of Self's rotation all year and did not play in the Maui Invitational championship game against Duke. Justin Wesley, who Self has played in favor of Young, picked up two quick fouls in three minutes against OSU, forcing Self to play Young more minutes than he had planned. Young delivered, scoring14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, taking two charges and helping hold Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas to four points in the second half.
"I haven't seen that," Self said. "If I had seen it, then certainly we made a mistake by not playing him as much. That was his coming out game. He hasn't been defending like that. He hasn't been aggressive like that. He hasn't been a loose ball guy like that in practice. Today, he was a combination of everything. He was terrific."
While Johnson and Young helped build KU's lead, Robinson finished off the Buckeyes. He scored 10 straight points (out of a game-high 21) in the game's final four minutes.
Robinson has replaced the Morris twins as KU's go-to inside scorer, and the offense (aside from the turnovers) has started to mirror the efficient Jayhawks of a season ago. Kansas put up 1.11 points per possession against an OSU defense that came into the game allowing only 0.72 points per trip (second nationally). The Jayhawks shot an effective FG percentage of 68, which was the best mark against OSU's defense since Iowa attained the same mark on December 31, 2008.
The Jayhawks were the best shooting team in the country last year, mostly because they took good shots and made a point of waiting to shoot until a Morris twin had a touch. That sort of patience has been tough to come by with so many possessions ended by a turnover this season, but against the Buckeyes the KU ball movement from side to side was as good as it has been all season. Robinson in particular benefited from getting the ball in the right spots to score.
"I want to play fast, and we need to score fast or shoot quick if we can," Self said. "But if it's not there, we need to give Thomas a chance to shoot. He made some big time post moves with big fellas laying on him."
Of course, the biggest fella for the Buckeyes was missing in action, and that was most obvious offensively. The Jayhawks had a purpose on offense, while the Buckeyes missed what Matta calls their "safety valve" in Sullinger. Thomas (19 points on 7-of-14 shooting), William Buford (21 points on 8-of-23), and Aaron Craft (11, 4-of-11) kept the Buckeyes close, but that sort of efficiency was not good enough against KU.
Once Sullinger returns, Ohio State will return to its perch as one of the best two or three teams in the country. Self said afterward that he didn't think an asterisk belonged by this win. The Jayhawks had a lot to take away -- Taylor's gutsy performance, Johnson getting his shot back, Young becoming a viable option off the bench -- and they proved themselves against what even without Sullinger is still a good Buckeye defense.
"We're not going to apologize for beating Ohio State without Sullinger," Self said. "It's still a really good win for us. We beat a top-10 team without him, and certainly we caught a break."
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.