LAWRENCE — It would be easy to say that Kansas just needed to return home, to the comfort and ease of Allen Fieldhouse. Maybe that’s the easiest explanation. But maybe it’s also the most true.
On Monday night, with a capacity crowd in the old barn, No. 4 Kansas returned home and buried Baylor 61-44, a dominating performance against a team many thought would be Kansas’ most worthy challenger in the Big 12 race.
This was a knockout — perhaps a sloppy one — but a technical beatdown, nonetheless. Baylor had entered with one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation. And three days after a lackluster effort at Texas Tech, Kansas squeezed the life out of a previously undefeated Big 12 opponent.
“Tonight was different,” senior guard Elijah Johnson said. “I’m pretty sure everyone knows it’s different playing in Texas Tech’s arena and the fieldhouse. And (with) the crowd, you have no choice. Big game (and) you remember what happened last time.”
By last time, Johnson meant the loss KU suffered to Baylor in the semifinals of last season’s Big 12 Tournament — the loss that prevented another showdown with Missouri in the Big 12 title game.
“The crowd wants to see something,” Johnson said.
For Kansas, the scariest moment may have come with 2:44 left in the second half, when freshman guard Ben McLemore lay on the ground in pain, clutching at his right ankle. McLemore stayed down for more than a minute, before limping off with KU’s trainers and heading to the locker room.
“My heart dropped,” Johnson said.
KU coach Bill Self said McLemore had been evaluated by team doctors and suffered a grade-1 sprained ankle. Self added that McLemore is likely day to day for now.
“I can’t make a prediction on how many days he’s gonna be out,” Self said, “but we’re certainly hopeful that it’s not more than two or three.”
For now, signs point to McLemore being a possibility to play on Saturday, when Kansas travels to play Texas in Austin. But in the moment on Monday night, the crowd of 16,300 fell deathly silent.
And for good reason. McLemore shook off a quiet performance against Texas Tech on Saturday and finished with a team-high 17 points. Johnson also rebounded after an early January slide, finishing with 12 points while playing through foul trouble in the first half.
More than that, though, Kansas reclaimed a semblance of its defensive identity, limiting Baylor to just 23.2 percent (13 for 56) shooting for the game. More bad math: Baylor connected on just 9 of 42 from two-point range, and with KU center Jeff Withey anchoring the paint, the Jayhawks finished with as many blocks (13) as Baylor had field goals.
“He changes so much stuff,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
It was that ugly all night.
In the opening 20 minutes, Baylor made six of its first 28 shots, and other than senior point guard Pierre Jackson and freshman forward Isaiah Austin, it was a near shutout. In the opening 20 minutes, the rest of Baylor’s roster combined to shoot 1 of 16 from the floor.
For Kansas, this felt like a night with a little more urgency than usual.
This was Big Monday, a primetime slot, and Kansas entered the night attempting to distance itself from an early January rut. In three games, the Jayhawks had looked quite mortal. They’d needed a second-half comeback to extinguish Temple, a minor miracle to beat Iowa State in overtime, and then looked mediocre in a 14-point victory at Texas Tech on Saturday.
This wasn’t a game for an offensive purist. But it was the game Kansas needed.
“It wasn’t a very artistic game, by any means,” Self said. “But this was a game where we probably needed to ‘ugly’ it up a little bit. Because if it’s a totally free-flowing game, they’ve got enough athletes where they can do some things to hurt us.”
And Monday also provided the right set of circumstances to regain some of KU’s December swagger. The right time. The right atmosphere. And the right opponent. Baylor’s Drew, an annual KU foil, brought his latest incarnation of Bears into the fieldhouse, and the Jayhawks (15-1, 3-0 Big 12) were ready from the opening minutes.
And now, the Jayhawks will head back on the road on Saturday at Texas, away from Allen Fieldhouse’s invincibility cloak. But for a night, the Jayhawks took advantage of the surroundings.
“I didn’t sense any fatigue factor with us at all tonight,” Self said. “I thought we played with great energy. And that was a totally different team, from an intensity standpoint, than what we were down in Lubbock.”