USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder looks at how the Jayhawks and Ducks prevailed to set up their upcoming matchup in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament.
USA TODAY Sports
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The evolution of this Kansas team might be nearing completion. All season, as the Jayhawks racked up victories, the story line was how they were clutch, and kept winning close games in a very tough Big 12. And while it was true enough, it also led to this question:
Could they keep doing it in the NCAA Tournament? Or could it be that one night the late shots wouldn’t go down, or an opponents’ would. Kansas wouldn’t make the critical steal or defensive stop. The other guys would. Life on a knife’s edge would finally cut at the worst possible time.
Instead, Kansas has found a new way to win: By overwhelming opponents, then annihilating them.
For a team with sights set on winning a national title, it’s a scary good development.
“We’re coming together,” sophomore forward Carlton Bragg said. “We’re getting tougher.”
BOX SCORE: Jayhawks 98, Boilermakers 66
They’re getting better.
Thursday night, playing on a virtual home court at the Sprint Center, the Jayhawks turned a grinder into a laugher, pulling away from Purdue during an impressive second-half stretch to win 98-66.
Kansas (31-4) will face No. 3 Oregon (32-5) on Sunday for a berth in the Final Four. Its performance against Purdue was reminiscent of one a few days earlier, in Tulsa in the Round of 32, against another Big Ten opponent. But Purdue was better than Michigan State. The Boilermakers, who won the Big Ten’s regular-season crown, seemingly had the strengths to exploit Kansas’ weaknesses, such as they are — the lack of interior size and especially depth.
The Boilermakers led by as many as eight points in the first half. And five minutes into the second half, they were down by only 58-54. But then Kansas just ran away.
It was 40-12 the rest of the way.
“That’s about as well in the second half as I can remember a team playing,” Kansas coach Bill Self said — and if we restrict the parameters to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, he might be right.
And if this is a trend — Kansas outscored Michigan State by 15 points in the second half last Sunday to win 90-70 — then it’s possible Kansas is undergoing a significant transformation at the best possible time.
The Jayhawks already were an obviously formidable bunch. The proof was in a regular season that built a rock solid resume for the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed. Their scoring average of 83.4 points is the highest in Self’s 14 seasons. They’re as potent offensively as any team in the country. And they won the Big 12 title (for the 13th consecutive season) by four games over second place.
But even as they dominated in the standings, the Jayhawks’ m.o. was more finding a way to win than crushing people. Their average margin in 16 victories over Big 12 opponents was 7.4 points. They won games by one, two (twice), three, four (twice), five (twice), six and seven points. Several times, they made frenzied second-half runs that resembled something like we’ve seen in these last two games — but those were of necessity, to overcome double-digit deficits.
There were very few nights of outright dominance — nothing, really, that resembled what we’ve just seen. This is something new. It’s like a switch has been flipped: annihilation mode. And it’s scary.
What changed? Maybe only the stage.
“When we’re a high-energy team, we’re very good,” said Self, understating things a bit. “But over the course of 35 games, you’re not a high-energy team every night.”
Kansas gets every team’s best shot, all year long. And while it’s easy to talk about being focused for every game, it’s not reality.
“We talked about it all year,” said Landen Lucas, the Jayhawks’ senior center. “Obviously, it hasn’t translated the way we wanted it to.”
But now, against the one-and-done pressure of the NCAA Tournament, focus is no longer an issue.
“We’re taking everything a lot more serious,” Lucas said. “We try to do that the whole year, but it’s really hard to do night in and night out, to keep that intensity. But now that we’re doing it the whole 40 minutes, it’s paying off.”
Whatever the reason, suddenly all of Kansas’ assets are firing at once. That ultra-fast four-guard lineup redlines the game’s tempo on both ends, eventually stretching opponents past the breaking point. Defense fuels transition, resulting in domination.
Remember those pregame questions about how Kansas would handle those bigs? Kansas outrebounded Purdue by seven, and scored 14 points after offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, guards Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham each scored 26 points, and combined to hit 11 of 14 3-point attempts (Kansas was 15 of 28).. And afterward, Lucas chuckled.
“I thought it was kind of silly in a way, talking about how we would stop their bigs,” he said. “There was less talk about how they were gonna stop our guards – and that’s obviously a problem.”
Kansas shot 67 percent in the second half. That’s an anomaly, sure, but not by all that much — the season average is almost 50%. The overall effect against Purdue, like Michigan State five days earlier, was wave after wave after wave, swamping everything.
“By the end of the game, it’s just too much,” Lucas said. “Our guards are wearing them down.”
So the next question is: Can Kansas be stopped? Purdue coach Matt Painter supplied the only obvious answer:
“If they play like they did in the second half,” he said, “they can’t.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SWEET 16