Bill Self, Elijah Johnson

For Elijah Johnson, Monday’s comeback was about more than just one win

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Iowa State, playing in one of the toughest home-court environments in the country, hit 17 threes and scored 90 points in regulation against No. 6 Kansas and still managed to lose, 108-96 in overtime.

Why?

Elijah Johnson.

*(Before I get any further here, the referees were terrible down the stretch in this game. They gave Jeff Withey’s fifth foul, which was clearly on Withey, to Kevin Young. They also blew a charge call and then gifted Kansas a loose ball foul on the final possession that led to the game-tying free throws. Oh, and after the blown charge call, Withey kept the offensive rebound alive to create the opportunity for the loose ball foul. Just a terrible, terrible job down the stretch.)

The Jayhawk’s senior guard finished with 39 points, on 13-22 shooting, and seven assists. But what was more impressive than the numbers he finished with was how he finished the game.

After Iowa State’s Georges Niang hit a three to put the Cyclones up 87-82 with less than a minute left, Johnson answered with a three of his own with 32 seconds on the clock. After two free throws from Korie Lucious, he hit another three 17 seconds left. After Lucious went 1-2 from the line, Johnson forced overtime when he knocked down two free throws with 4.9 ticks left.

And he wasn’t done. He kicked off overtime with a layup and a jumper. After finding Travis Releford for a wide-open three on the next possession, Johnson came down and buried another three, giving Kansas a 100-92 lead. ISU would score four straight points to make things interesting again, but with just over a minute left in the extra period, Johnson drilled a fadeaway, 25-foot three as the shot clock horn sounded, all but ending any hope of Hilton Magic.

All told, Johnson scored eight points in the final 32 seconds of regulation and 10 points in the first four minutes of overtime. Throw in his assist to Releford, and the oft-maligned senior guard accounted for all 21 Jayhawk points in a 21-9, game-winning run.

What makes this performance all the more impressive is that, while playing better over the last three games for the Jayhawks, Johnson has really struggled this season. Bill Self has tried to convert him to the point full-time, and it’s been somewhat of a disaster. His confidence was completely shot during the Jayhawk’s three-game losing streak, and he not only looked like he was completely lost on the court, he simply didn’t look like a kid that was having any fun.

For a senior, that’s a shame.

But it was never a talent issue for Johnson. He’s got the ability to be an effective player for the Jayhawks, whether he’s handling the ball or playing alongside Naadir Tharpe. The Jayhawk’s situation at the point is not ideal, but it’s far from a worse-case scenario.

Johnson isn’t a true point guard, but he’s also not as bad as he has been this season.

And that’s why this game is so important.

Just because Johnson took over for a five-minute stretch in a tough road environment doesn’t change the fact that, at practice tomorrow, Self is still going to be without a true point guard running the show. But he will have his most talented option at the point brimming with confidence. With the way that Kansas can defend, they don’t need Trey Burke. They don’t need Phil Pressey. What they need is Johnson — and, for that matter, Tharpe — knocking down open threes, creating off the dribble when there is a lane, and avoiding those soul-crushing turnovers that result in layups at the other end of the floor.

A confident Johnson can be that guy.

And that’s what makes this game — and this performance from Johnson — so important.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

BUBBLE BANTER: All of the action on the fringe of the NCAA tournament

Fred VanVleet
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Tonight’s bubble action. This post will be updated as the games are completed.

Cincinnati at UCF, 7:00 p.m.
Pitt at No. 12 Miami, 7:00 p.m.
No. 25 Wichita State at Drake, 8:00 p.m.
Ole Miss at Florida, 9:00 p.m.
Georgia at No. 22 Kentucky, 9:00 p.m.
Arkansas at Mississippi State, 9:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: A Big 12 and a Big Ten showdown

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 10 West Virginia at No. 6 Kansas, 7:00 p.m.

The last time these two teams got together, West Virginia actually knocked off Kansas in Morgantown. It was the third time in the last three seasons that WVU has beaten KU at home. So there’s some revenge at stake here. But there’s also the whole Big 12 title race, which West Virginia currently leads. If the Mountaineers win tonight, they’ll be up by two games on Kansas with the tie breaker and just seven games left to play. The Jayhawks regular season title streak could be over if that happens.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 8 Michigan State at No. 18 Purdue, 7:00 p.m.

We think the Spartans are back to their early season form after wins over Maryland (at home), Northwestern, Rutgers and Michigan. If Michigan State really wants to prove something to the college basketball world, they will go into West Lafayette tonight and get a win. Denzel Valentine vs. Raphael Davis will be fun.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Pitt will pay a visit to No. 12 Miami in a game the Panthers could really use a win in. Pitt hasn’t been the most consistent team in the country and without adding a few quality wins they could be looking at the bubble.
  2. Duquesne will be paying a visit to No. 19 Dayton, who moved into a tie for first place in the Atlantic 10 thanks to VCU’s loss on Saturday.
  3. Georgia is right there on the bubble, and they will have a chance to try and push themselves into a better spot when they play at No. 22 Kentucky tonight.
  4. Creighton probably has to win out to have a shot of making the NCAA tournament, and that includes tonight, when they host No. 5 Xavier.
  5. No. 7 Virginia will be hosting Virginia Tech, who picked off the Wahoos in Blacksburg earlier this year.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 1 Villanova at DePaul, 8:30 p.m.
  • No. 25 Wichita State at Drake, 8:00 p.m.