LAWRENCE — Early Saturday afternoon, as the people began to flow into a sun-speckled Allen Fieldhouse, senior Elijah Johnson returned to the locker room after some pregame warmups.
In minutes, the Kansas Jayhawks would take the floor against former Big 12 Conference foe Colorado. The building was already buzzing. And Johnson was met with the usual question from his coach.
How is it out there?
“It feels like a conference game,” Johnson replied.
The atmosphere was not lost on senior forward Kevin Young, either. Just moments earlier, he had stood on the court surveying the scene and turned to teammate Jeff Withey.
“Uh oh,” Young said, “it’s time to go.”
So maybe it was something about the building, or the time. Self likes to say that there’s no better basketball setting in the world than Allen Fieldhouse on a Saturday afternoon. (“The light shining through the windows,” Self says.) And this was a juiced fieldhouse for an important non-conference game. But maybe, as Young says, the Jayhawks just realized it was time to go.
From the first possession on Saturday, when Kansas came out in full-court pressure, the Jayhawks played like a team that was ready to make a statement. This was a Colorado team that had defeated Big 12 contender Baylor this season. And senior Travis Releford had seen Colorado floated as a trendy upset pick. Now KU had the Buffaloes in the lion’s den.
“That kind of had us on edge,” Releford said.
So when the dust settled on Kansas’ 90-54 bludgeoning of Colorado, the result did a little more than prove that Kansas can still dominate an old friend. (The Jayhawks have won 19 straight in the series.)
It also served as a possible template for what Kansas can be. When Young is bouncing around and creating havoc, when freshman Ben McLemore is scoring and when seniors Jeff Withey and Releford crank up the defense, the Jayhawks (7-1) can be a dangerous team.
“Today was a step that shows them: That’s how we should play,” Self said.
McLemore finished with a game-high 24 points and five rebounds. Withey recorded another five blocks. And the KU defense forced 18 turnovers, scoring 20 points in transition. Self noted that his five starters accounted for 15 assists and just five turnovers.
“The plan was to challenge ourselves,” Releford said. “The recent games we’ve played at home, we haven’t made teams feel the pressure.”
It was Young who proved to be the catalyst. A senior in just his second year, after transferring from Loyola Marymount before last season, Young finished with a KU career-high 16 points and eight rebounds on 8-of-9 shooting. More important, he was the point man on the full-court pressure that left Colorado staggered in the opening minutes.
“My mindset is: If we get a five-second count, we don’t have to play defense,” Young said.
The Jayhawks built a 25-8 lead in the opening minutes. And by midway through the second half, Kansas had landed enough body shots and combos to take a 74-34 lead.
“What did he do that wasn’t anything except effort?” Self said of Young. “He just ran, he jumped, he went after the ball. …
“He just played so hard.”
The Buffaloes were returning to Allen Fieldhouse for the first time since leaving the Big 12 Conference in the summer of 2010. Saturday, though, looked like so many other Kansas-Colorado games. In some ways, it was reminiscent of another Big 12 blowout back in 2008, when Kansas rolled Texas Tech by 58 and then Texas Tech coach Pat Knight offered these famous words:
“I feel like someone put a meat necklace around my neck and threw me into a lion’s den.”
On Saturday afternoon, Colorado coach Tad Boyle, a former KU guard, was a little more blunt.
“That was an old-fashioned (butt)-whipping,” Boyle said.
It was hard to argue with Boyle, who had watched his best player, guard Spencer Dinwiddie, score four points and his team shoot 37 percent.
For now, the Jayhawks will have another week off for final exams before returning to the floor against Belmont next Saturday.
But for Young, that will be time well-spent. He’s in his final season after just two years in Lawrence. But sometimes, like after Saturday’s game, he’ll sit back and think about how strange it’s been — to go from a mid-major school to starting in Allen Fieldhouse on days like this.
“It’s crazy just the way it happened,” Young said. “I would have never thought that I was gonna go from Loyola, to sitting out, to coming to play in one of the best venues in the world.
“I constantly look back and see how grateful I am, so it just makes me work.”