LAWRENCE — When its all going smoothly, this is what Kansas looks like. There’s senior guard Elijah Johnson throwing a left-handed bounce pass through traffic, and there’s Travis Releford receiving the ball near the basket before flipping it back to center Jeff Withey for an uncontested jam.
“That left-handed back-door pass,” KU coach Bill Self would say afterward, “those are pretty special plays.”
This is Kansas, still flashing its early-season potential. It’s Johnson playing with his old explosiveness, bouncing around the court and dishing out assists. It’s Ben McLemore finishing the first half with an alley-oop at the buzzer. And it’s Kansas, playing a respectable mid-major opponent after a week layoff, showing up at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night and running away from Belmont in an 89-60 victory.
Releford and McLemore each finished with 17 points, while freshman Andrew White III had a career-high 15 points off the bench. Johnson filled the stat sheet with seven points, nine assists and five rebounds.
It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. At least, not on paper or the spreadsheet pixels.
Belmont is no small-school patsy. The Bruins have made the NCAA Tournament five times since 2006, and they entered Saturday with a resume that included a 7-2 record and some gaudy numbers in college basketball’s version of the computer rankings. College basketball stats maven Ken Pomeroy had them ranked No. 23 in his system. (And we’ll pause now to point out that Belmont’s ranking put them ahead of every other Big 12 team except… well, Kansas.)
The result, Belmont coach Rick Byrd said, was not expected.
“We just couldn’t find a way to make this game competitive,” Byrd said.
So perhaps Belmont wasn’t worthy of that lofty perch. But it’s certainly worth some consideration when you put Kansas’ defensive performance in perspective.
The Bruins shot 34 percent from the field and were, for most of the second half, resigned to chuck threes from the perimeter.
It didn’t work.
Belmont shot just 8 of 38 from three-point range.
“At halftime,” Releford said, “Coach had the stats that they shot 17 (in the first half), and he came out and told us at halftime that they was gonna shoot 35-plus threes. So we gotta come out ready and stay tuned in on defense.”
White’s contribution — including 3-of-5shooting from three-point range — came after he spent most of the early season buried on the bench. On Saturday, Self employed White, a three-point specialist, as a pick-and-pop power forward.
“We played him at the four,” Self said. “We tried to use him as a pick-and-pop guy. There’s no way that Belmont could know he could shoot, because statistically he hasn’t yet. But that’s what he does best.”
But Self reserved his highest compliments for Johnson, who now looks fully healthy and comfortable at the point-guard spot after struggling with a knee issue during the season’s opening weeks.
“Elijah was the best player in the game tonight,” Self said. “We can say what we want to, because he only takes seven shots. But he totally controlled the game.
“He got us easy baskets.”
By the six-minute mark of the second half, White hit a jumper that stretched the lead to 87-46, and Self began to empty the bench. And after another 40-minute blowout, this Kansas team suddenly looks a little bit different than it did eight days ago. Back then, before Kansas took the floor against Colorado, the Jayhawks were still an emerging team that was trying to find its collective voice.
There were spurts of brilliance in the opening weeks, of course. But there were also growing pains, the Jayhawks corps of freshmen trying to catch up with Self’s crew of returning veterans.
Eight days later, Kansas possesses two decisive victories over teams that have reasonable hopes of maybe playing in March. And now Kansas can look forward to a home matchup with Richmond on Tuesday before heading to Columbus for a marquee showdown with No. 7 Ohio State.
“We need to have a good week this next week,” Self said. “We need to play good against Richmond and then end the break right up in Columbus and hopefully have a little momentum going in to Christmas.”