LAWRENCE — Elijah Johnson is not the type of player to look ahead. He’s a senior, and there’s practice tomorrow, and that means Kansas coach Bill Self will get after his team about defending and rebounding being tough. Yes, Self will probably say something about toughness.
So late on Tuesday night, just about 30 minutes after Kansas had ripped through some more mid-major chum by beating Richmond 87-59, Johnson said he wasn’t looking too far ahead. The Jayhawks still needed to arrive at practice and work on Wednesday. There were issues to be sorted out, areas to improve.
No matter what lies ahead on Saturday afternoon: a heavyweight showdown with No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus; a rematch of last year’s Final Four clash; a chance for KU to go out and claim a signature victory.
“We got a couple more days,” Johnson said.
Then again, Johnson is also the type of player that understands what this Ohio State game means. This is Kansas, after all, and that’s why you come here, Johnson says, to going on the road and trade shots with another contender.
“I think that’s what we do at Kansas,” Johnson said. “I feel like that’s the only thing we haven’t done. We played on a neutral floor, we’ve played at home. We’ve played great shooting teams, we’ve played good driving teams. I feel like the only thing we haven’t done is go to somebody else’s house and try to bring the pain.”
Pain, though, is something Kansas knows plenty about. For the last week and a half, KU has set up shop in Allen Fieldhouse and dominated three teams that could find themselves as high seeds in the NCAA Tournament — or playing somewhere in the NIT. No sense in lining up and destroying another team of scrapper and shooters.
On Tuesday, for the third straight game, Kansas outclassed an overmatched opponent. Senior center Jeff Withey finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks as KU’s defense dismantled the Spiders for 40 minutes.
Johnson has a phrase for these games (“Just showing them what the Fieldhouse feel like,” he says). But if Kansas gained something on Tuesday — other than some more confidence — it came from the shooting stroke of sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe, who finished with 11 points off the bench and made 3 of 4 three-pointers. Self says he’d like to cut down on Johnson’s minutes — maybe slice off three or four in the first half — but that largely depends on the development of Tharpe.
On Tuesday, for once, Self said Tharpe defended with the right amount of intensity.
“He guarded the ball harder,” Self said. “He got over ball screens; he was just more aggressive.”
Tharpe has always had the ability to shoot from deep. Mostly, though, he’s just lacked playing time and confidence. He entered Tuesday shooting 28.6 percent (6 of 21) from three-point range. Not that he acted like it. After missing a step-back three-pointer in the first half, Tharpe buried all four of his shots in the second.
“His shot selection is really not something that you can predict.” Johnson said. “He’ll strike when you least expect it.
“So he make that first one, it’s kind of like putting him on a roll. He don’t need to make two to get on a roll.”
On the defensive end, Tuesday was more of the same. Kansas had held Colorado and Belmont, two efficient offensive teams, to 35 percent shooting. Richmond was even worse, hitting 32.8 percent from the floor. One reason for the suffocating defensive numbers: Teams have practically stopped challenging Withey on the inside.
“It’s pretty much a scramble,” Johnson said. “You don’t see many people that wanna go in there and get their shot blocked. So I think it just throws them off as far as just rhythm.”
Take Tuesday’s first half: With 11:31 left, Richmond picked off an in-bounds pass and finished a fastbreak, cutting KU’s lead to 15-11. For the next seven minutes, KU’s defense went to work. The Spiders missed 10 straight shots. Withey picked up a couple of more blocks. Kansas’ guards forced turnovers. And the Jayhawks went on a patented Allen Fieldhouse run, stretching the lead to 33-11 with more than three minutes left in the half.
Just like that, it was over. And now, finally, Ohio State.
The Jayhawks will get to measure themselves against a top-10 team on the road. Can Johnson get into the lane against Ohio State stopper Aaron Craft? Can Withey continue his dominant defense against a Big Ten front court? It’s been more than a month since the Jayhawks (9-1) suffered their only loss, a hard-fought defeat against Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Atlanta. And Self noted that KU hasn’t played a close game since. His team, Self says, needs this.
“We’ll find out where we are Saturday,” Self said. “It’ll be good for us to go up there and see how tight our huddle is, and see if we can focus, and see if we can spin the energy in the building to our favor. And (we’ll) find out how tough we are. I’m really looking forward to it.”