NCAA Tournament 2017: The Kansas team we expected all season is finally showing up
After an up-and-down season, the Jayhawks are hitting their stride at the perfect time
TULSA, Okla. – This is the way it was supposed to be all season for Kansas.
Routs. Ambushes. Basketball seal-clubbings.
It wasn’t just KU’s sometimes-entitled fans who demanded better after a season’s worth of closer-than-expected results.
It was the Jayhawks themselves.
“It was a hard game to coach,” Kansas’ Bill Self said following Sunday’s 90-70 win over Michigan State that vaulted his team into the Sweet 16, “in large part because nobody listened to me.”
In a sense, that was typical Jayhawks. There seemed to be something missing all season, whether it was consistent quality defense, Josh Jackson (suspended for one game) or a general sense of finishing.
But the blueblood program that had trouble putting a sleeper hold on opponents is now wide awake.
It’s not just the combined margin of victory (58 points) here in the Jayhawks’ first two NCAA Tournament games. It’s that the Jayhawks are taking all this momentum to Kansas City for the Midwest Regional. That’s about as close to a home-court advantage for a regional that the NCAA legally allows.
To be specific: Lawrence, Kansas is 40 miles from Kansas City, Missouri. Just don’t ask guard Devonte Graham for a geography lesson.
“Why wouldn’t we be excited to play in our hometown, in our own state, in front of the best fans in the world?” Graham asked.
Suddenly, that 13th consecutive conference title is garnish. Another 30-win season is a prelude. Self’s ninth Sweet 16 in 14 years means the Jayhawks are two wins away from the Final Four.
If March is when it matters, then it’s safe to say now: More efficient play was expected of a team with the nation’s No. 1 recruit (Jackson), with perhaps the nation’s No. 1 player (Frank Mason) -- a team that spent much of the season at No. 1.
“We really weren’t concerned about TCU,” Graham said of the Jayhawks’ last loss 10 days ago in the Big 12 Tournament. “That was a long time ago. I thought that really woke us up. It could be over soon.”
Maybe it really is possible to flip the switch. A case can be made for the Jayhawks being the best team left in the tournament. Before that argument starts, they definitely have their own set of triplets -- Mason, Jackson and Graham. They also have a legitimate post in 6-foot-10, 250-pound Landen Lucas who put up back-to-back double-doubles against UC Davis and Michigan State.
On Sunday, they showed a toughness that matched the gritty Spartans. At times it looked personal when freshman star Miles Bridges guarded his buddy Jackson. They’d been friends back in Michigan since the fifth grade. When Jackson didn’t sign with Tom Izzo last year, that might have been the difference in Sunday’s game. Never mind that Izzo’s 2016 class was his best ever.
A lot of good that does him now. Jackson outscored Bridges 23-22 in what, at times, seemed to be a can-you-top-this battle.
“We wanted to beat his brains in today,” Izzo said of Jackson. “I’m sure the feeling was mutual.”
It was chippy in a prideful way. Bridges left the game early after taking an elbow to the hip. All game, Bridges was seen yapping at Jackson, whom he guarded.
“I was just a little bit too amped up to play,” Jackson said.
That changed. Jackson might have been the MVP of Tulsa, shooting 61 percent and scoring 40 points in two games.
“We’re a tough team. We’re not going to back down just because you bump us,” Graham said. “We do it to each other all the time in practice.”
That’s the pattern the Jayhawks were in for much of the season, winning the Big 12 by four games.
“When you play good teams in your league, you’re naturally going to play close games, especially away from home,” Self said. “You play Kentucky, it’s going to be close. You play Duke, it’s going to be close. You play Indiana, it’s going to be close.”
The Jayhawks played all three, losing only to Indiana. Sunday may have marked KU’s best overall performance since a Jan. 28 win at Kentucky.
“Playing great teams helped us for this moment,” backup post Dwight Coleby said.
This moment puts the Jayhawks in the womb of the Sprint Center where they have played 41 games since the building opened 11 years ago. They have won 34 of them.
This moment puts them in Kansas City, still the site of the most NCAA tournament games in history. It is a place where Kansas is 138 games above .500 since 1899.
Disposing of Michigan State avoided what would have been a Big Ten Invitational in KC with Michigan and Purdue -- KU’s Sweet 16 opponent -- already headed there.
This moment means it’s hard to nitpick a 30-4 team. We’ll see if the Jayhawks own the tournament. For two games here at the BOK Center, it looked like they owned the place.
Maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be all season.
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