Kansas is peaking at the right time

A bit before the midway point of the second half on Thursday, the Kansas Jayhawks left Purdue in their wake. What had been a competitive Sweet 16 game between the two teams devolved into a blowout that had started to feel inevitable, and when the dust settled, Kansas’ victory margin was 32 points: 98-66.

Purdue is (or rather, was) a good team this season, the best one in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate in center Caleb Swanigan, who had a typically strong game. The score was 36-36 with about four minutes to play in the first half. The game had the look of being a game.

Kansas closed the first half on an 11-4 run, and it no longer looked like such a game anymore. But Purdue pushed back, and a Swanigan three-pointer with around 16:30 left made the score 53-51, Jayhawks. The game had the look of a game, again.

But the Boilermakers were chasing a train they’d never catch. Kansas responded with a 5-0 run to go back up by seven, then with a slow drip to make it a laugher. The Jayhawks’ points came from all over the court. Purdue ran out of responses.

Kansas’ box score is distributed so beautifully. Player of the Year candidate Frank Mason III is always a lead actor, but as usual, he got lots of help.

Everybody entrusted with shooting more than two times contributed in a big way. Only Carlton Bragg Jr., with a meaningless 0-of-2 night, was technically not helpful shooting the ball.

For the year, Kansas only has three double-figure scorers: point guard Mason, freshman wing Josh Jackson, and shooting guard Devonte’ Graham.

But seven of the eight Jayhawks to appear in Bill Self’s rotation on Thursday average at least five points per game on the season. They all have offensive ratings of at least 107, indicating they’re efficient. Even the ones who shoot the least often when they’re on the court — forward Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and guard LaGerald Vick — can be primary scorers when needed.

Kansas doesn’t have a ton of depth in numbers. For a lot of the year, Self’s effectively had to use a seven-man rotation. The Jayhawks have never had a lot of depth in their frontcourt this year, and they’ve had less since 7-foot freshman Udoka Azubuike went out early in the season with a wrist injury. The perk of being Kansas is that the players who do play for this team are all elite talents, and they can all score.

Kansas hasn’t played this well all season.
Throw out a first-round win against 16th-seeded UC Davis, even though that one included 100 points. Let’s focus first on KU’s last two games: the routs against Michigan State and now Purdue.

Kansas’ average margin of victory against the Spartans and Boilers was 26 points. Its effective shooting percentage in those games? 59.4 and 66.9. Both of those are huge numbers, in a stat that factors in the added value of making three-pointers. (Kansas was 15-of-28 on those against Purdue.)

The Jayhawks have had other great runs this year. They won 18 in a row after a season-opening loss to Indiana in November. They’ve had other great two-game stretches; the best was back-to-back wins against Kentucky and Baylor as the calendar was flipping from January to February. It’s not like being good is new to them.

But the scale of their decimation of Michigan State and Purdue is fairly awing. One of those teams is coached by Tom Izzo. The other has Swanigan at center and had not lost a game by more than 12 points before KU beat it by almost three times that many.

Is a win of this magnitude against a team like Purdue the biggest win put upon a top-15-or so team all season? It’s got to be right up there.

Kansas has experience, but that won’t be what carries this team.
Self has a decent case as the best coach doing this right now. He’s now taken Kansas to the Elite Eight in seven of his 14 years on the job. He’s only gone 2-4 in his first six tries, but he’s well used to the stage now. So is the non-freshman nucleus of this team, which lost by a few hairs to eventual champion Villanova in a regional final last year.

That’s not what makes Kansas so good, though. What makes Kansas so good is that it has too many people who are excellent at putting basketballs through hoops.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Defense, domination and disappointment: Takeaways from first half of the Sweet 16

So Night One gave us the First Four of the Elite Eight, and we still have Night Two to go before we get the Other Four, and all of them will then play for the chance to reach the Final Four? Sweet!

If that makes your head spin, then you are in the proper frame of mind for the final stretch of March Madness. Here are a few thoughts on Thursday’s action, replay review included:

• I’m still deciding whether the Gonzaga-West Virginia tussle was the worst good game or the best awful game I’ve ever seen. It certainly was one of the more memorable ones. More than anything, the win demonstrated that Gonzaga, contrary to conventional wisdom, is a mentally tough team. The Zags actually handled the Mountaineers’ fullcourt pressure well (16 turnovers), but the real challenge in going up against West Virginia is the 40 minutes of relentlessness. The Zags were scrappy, and their defense, which many people don’t realize is currently ranked No. 1 in efficiency on KenPom, was at a championship level. A little luck never hurts, too.

• Although if the Zags are going to get to Phoenix, they’re going to need a better offensive performance from point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. He was 2 for 10 from the floor and is now 12 for 42 (1 for 8 from three) in the first three games. On the season, Williams-Goss led the team with 16.7 points per game average on 50.4% shooting.

• FACTOID OF THE WEEK THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME: In the loss to Gonzaga, West Virginia shot 16 for 60 from the floor. In a one-point win over Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament two weeks ago, West Virginia shot 16 for 60 from the floor.

• We had a very lengthy and sticky replay review, which technically was against the rules. With 1:59 to play, the ball appeared to go out of bounds, and it was ruled Gonzaga’s ball. Because there was more than one player engaged on the play, the referees were required to go to the monitor to see if their call was correct. When they got there, they realized that the ball never actually went out of bounds. That, however, is not a reviewable play. Having discovered the error, the officials had to decide between doing what’s “legal” and what’s “right.” The refs ended up giving West Virginia the ball. So justice was served, but the rules were stretched, to say the least.

• Oregon sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey might be the best offensive player in the tournament (23.7 points per game on 66% shooting in three games), but the Ducks’ most valuable and important player Thursday night was Jordan Bell. The Ducks’ 6’9” junior forward had 16 points, 13 rebounds (four offensive) and two blocks. He also held Michigan forward Moritz Wagner, who was the hero of the win over Louisville with 26 points, to seven points on 3 for 10 shooting. Bell has had to play even heavier minutes since the Ducks lost backup center Chris Boucher in the Pac-12 tournament, and his overall excellence is a huge reason why they are still playing. Now you see why he was the captain of the SI.com All-Glue team.

• Although….It was very odd that Oregon had two fouls to give yet didn’t use them on Michigan’s final possession. Since there were fewer than 15 seconds on the clock, a couple of fouls could have pretty much ended the game. In the end, Derrick Walton Jr. got a pretty good look at a potential game-winning three. If that shot had gone in, there would be a lot of chatter this morning about Dana Altman’s poor defensive coaching down the stretch. But the shot misses, so we now sing Altman’s praises. See how this works?

• If you are defending Kansas, your primary weapon is hope. Because if the Jayhawks are not having an off shooting night, then they are darn near impossible to beat. Frank Mason came into their game against Purdue having shot just 3 for 11 from three in KU’s first two tourney games, so you knew he was due for a better game. He made 4 of 5 from behind the arc, Kansas shot 15 for 28 as a team, and the Jayhawks rolled from there. How’s this for a stat: Over the last 27 minutes, Kansas outscored Purdue 73 to 33. That is not a typo. And it’s not like Purdue is some crummy team, either. Kansas has gone over the 90-point mark in every NCAA tournament game so far.

• Here’s another reason to like Kansas moving forward: The way to beat a team like this is to slow it down and force an uncomfortable style. The only two teams remaining who have the ability to do that are Xavier and Butler. Oregon won’t do it, and neither will the other three teams playing in the South region tonight. So as far as I’m concerned, this championship is Kansas’s to lose.

• Xavier only had Myles Davis, a 6’2” senior guard who averaged 11 points per game last season, for three games because he was suspended the first two months and then quit the team in January. The Musketeers lost all three games he played in, and they dropped four out of five during that stretch. On Jan. 29, they lost their starting point guard and second-leading scorer, Edmond Sumner, to a season-ending ACL injury. Beginning Feb. 11, they lost six straight games. With just under eight minutes to go in a Big East tournament quarterfinal game, Xavier trailed Butler by seven points. The Musketeers came back to win by five. Had it lost that game, Xavier would likely have failed to qualify for the tournament. Now it is one game away from the Final Four. Everybody got all that?

• As for the win over Arizona Thursday night, it was yet another brilliant coaching clinic by Chris Mack. The Musketeers really stymied Arizona with their zone defenses—although they were sloppy on the defensive backboards, which is the risk you take when you play a zone. Xavier also got another terrific performance from 6’6” junior guard Trevon Bluiett, who eclipsed the 20-point mark for the third straight game in this tournament and finished with 25 points on 9 for 17 shooting. They only committed eight turnovers, had 14 assists on 28 made field goals, and got a stellar contribution off the bench from 6’10” junior forward Sean O’Mara (eight points, three rebounds in 21 minutes). And even though freshman point guard Quentin Goodin isn’t nearly the scorer Sumner was, he still runs the team pretty well (six assists and three turnovers) and is growing more comfortable every game. So this was a culture win if ever there was one.

• On the other hand, even though Arizona was in great position to win this game, the Wildcats’ zone offense was pretty awful most of the night. If it weren’t for those 14 offensive rebounds, the game might not have even been all that close. And it was positively inexcusable to have a dynamic offensive weapon like 7’0” freshman Lauri Markkanen and allow him to go the final 11 minutes without taking a shot.

• Finally, a few words on what I’m sure will be a major point of discussion in the coming days—namely, another disappointing exit for Sean Miller short of the Final Four. This is the seventh time Miller has reached the Sweet 16 at Xavier and Arizona, and I’m guessing this is the most disappointing loss he has suffered. Take your pick for the reason why: It came against a No. 11 seed, against his former employer coached by his close friend, in a game in which his team led by eight points with 3:45 to play, in a year in which his team was paired against the consensus weakest of the No. 1 seeds.

Frankly, I find the whole thing rather tiresome. This is, after all, the same Sean Miller that had been held up for most of the season as a Coach of the Year candidate. The idea that a coach isn’t “successful” unless and until he reaches a Final Four is unfair. It is, however, the reality of the profession. And while I think the world of Miller as a coach, I do sometimes wonder if he is wound too tight, that maybe he wants that first Final Four so badly that it makes it tougher for his players to perform with free minds. You may have seen video of Mark Few’s answer to the inane question about whether he is hoping to get the proverbial monkey off his back by “finally” making the Final Four. Few made it clear he has never bought into that line of thinking. I fear that Miller has, and for a coach who drips with intensity during games when far less is at stake, that can be an issue. I'm guessing this loss might cause Miller to do some soul searching. His burning intensity has served him so well for so long, but perhaps it's time to dial that back.

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