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Jayhawks, Cowboys ready for showdown

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The question was so far from the typical postgame query that it seemed to catch Kansas coach Bill Self off guard: How important is it for teams to have fun?

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Self had just watched his ninth-ranked Jayhawks have a blast in a blowout win over Texas, so maybe the question was apropos. But even so, he spent a few seconds pondering it before answering.

``It's huge. There's not a team in America that has fun every time they go play, at the same level, the same consistent level,'' he said. ``You go through ruts, and lose your personality and things like that. At least, every team we've had, that happens. We were duds there for three games. But I think we've got our personality back. When we play with energy, we're good.''

In other words, when the Jayhawks are having fun, they're good.

They seem to be back to having fun.

After losing three straight games for the first time in eight years, Kansas bounced back to beat Kansas State 83-62 last Monday night, and then pounded the Longhorns 73-47 on Saturday.

Now, they're just a half-game back of the Wildcats in the Big 12 race, and can pull back into a tie for first when they visit No. 14 Oklahoma State - also a half-game back - Wednesday night.

``We put ourselves in a tough position,'' Self said, ``knowing there's very little margin for error, but our guys usually respond pretty favorably when the stage is right.''

Self is the first to admit that the Jayhawks (21-4, 9-3 Big 12) were too tight in losses to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma. But they managed to break out of their funk against the Wildcats, and then kept the good times rolling last week.

Or dancing, as it were.

Yes, the Jayhawks were in such a quirky-happy mood that they filmed their own version of the Harlem Shake, the viral dance craze sweeping the nation. It begins with Self drawing up plays on a dry erase board, wiping the slate clean, and then writing ``Harlem Shake'' in big letters.

It segues into star freshman Ben McLemore wearing a ridiculous chicken head and dancing in the middle of the locker room. Shot-blocking center Jeff Withey rocks an afro, Travis Releford and Naadir Tharpe are dressed preposterously - in fact, the whole team got in on the joke.

Senior guard Elijah Johnson said backup forward Justin Wesley organized the whole thing, and ``at first I wasn't big on doing it. I think everybody kind of felt the same way. But when Justin forced us to do it, it turned into us having so much energy.''

The video had been viewed on YouTube nearly 1.3 million times by Tuesday afternoon.

``Those guys told me on Thursday, they said, `Coach, we need your locker room at 2 o'clock,''' Self said. ``They wanted me to dance. And that wasn't going to happen.

``I didn't know what the Harlem Shake was,'' he said. ``They asked me to do what I did, which really, I'm sure, added a lot to the video. I do think it showed team unity. The other thing is that I think our fans like seeing that our guys are real. I think that's what it does for us.''

All the silliness aside, the Jayhawks are looser now than they have been in months, and all those positive vibes couldn't be coming at a much better time.

Kansas has won eight consecutive Big 12 titles, but that reign is on the rocks. It wasn't long ago that the Cowboys ended the Jayhawks' lengthy home winning streak, and a loss Wednesday night at Gallagher-Iba Arena would leave them a game behind Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

``Oklahoma State is a tough team,'' Releford said. ``They came here and got us. We know we have to be on our game, go down there and do what we're supposed to.''

Cowboys coach Travis Ford sounded surprised when he was asked about the Jayhawks' recent three-game skid, pointing out that they'd lost one game before it all season.

``They've still only lost three or four. They're still one of the best teams in the country,'' he said. ``I think Coach Self said it himself, losing a couple games can happen to anybody.''

Still, Self said the game may be the biggest between the two teams since his first year at Kansas, when Eddie Sutton was still leading the Cowboys. The Jayhawks finished tied for second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma State, which advanced all the way to the Final Four.

``I'd anticipate Gallagher-Iba rocking,'' Self said. ``We're going to have to bring a great focus and, beyond focusing and competing, we're going to have to execute as well.''

Copyright 2018 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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