LAWRENCE — In the quiet moments, when the cameras and microphones are gone, Kansas’ seniors like to remind freshman Ben McLemore of the nickname that was bestowed on him during his redshirt freshman season.
They call him “Young Sav” — short for savage — and the name, of course, comes packed with a little bit of humor. Ben McLemore can be a savage, they say, the most ruthless player on the court. But in those other moments, when McLemore is smiling and deferring, and being the people-pleasing little bro, it can be hard to imagine him as “Young Sav.”
Maybe the same goes for the Jayhawks, who answered a week of doubters and naysayers with a complete dismantling of Kansas State on Monday night. After an eight-day tumble that included KU’s first three-game losing streak in eight years, the Jayhawks regained their swagger and slapped the in-state rival Wildcats 83-62.
This, of course, is Kansas this season. In moments this year, the Jayhawks (20-4, 8-3 Big 12), have looked like a Final Four contender, the bullies of the Big 12. For the last week or so, they looked mortal, even a little weak. They dropped a game at Allen Fieldhouse. They laid an egg at TCU. They just got beat at Oklahoma.
But on Monday morning, as McLemore celebrated his 20th birthday, the Jayhawks responded with a performance of a savage kind.
McLemore finished with 30 points and seven rebounds while knocking down six threes.
“He got in a rhythm,” KU coach Bill Self said. “… He attacked the goal better. He handled the ball better. He did a lot of things better tonight.”
And when McLemore is playing like this, and sophomore Naadir Tharpe is playing like a wiz-kid point guard, and the Jayhawks are playing their usual brand of stifling defense, the 16,300 fans at Allen Fieldhouse can breath a long cathartic sigh of relief and celebrate a night with a different kind of chant:
“This is our state, this is our state.”
Maybe it’s not ALL about the building. But it’s hard to imagine a better prescription for a haggard bunch than a night inside the confines of Allen Fieldhouse.
“The Fieldhouse,” KU center Jeff Withey said. “There’s nothing like it, that’s for sure.”
For the 44th time in 48 games, the Jayhawks came away winners in the Sunflower Showdown.
It was the kind of performance that has become a staple of this series. The Jayhawks shot 48.3 percent from the floor, while holding K-State to just 40 percent. And KU outscored the Wildcats 34-16 in the point.
The Jayhawks also got a key spark from Tharpe, who finished with seven points and eight assists, looking like the point guard that the Jayhawks have so badly needed during their three-game skid.
With starting guard Elijah Johnson on the bench in the first half, Tharpe set up McLemore for a three-pointer that gave KU a 28-13 lead. And moments later, he knocked down one of his own, keying a run that turned a 14-9 lead into a 47-29 halftime lead.
Senior center Jeff Withey added 17 points and five blocks, surpassing Greg Ostertag as the Jayhawks’ all-time leading shot-blocker.
You know, it wasn’t supposed to be like this — and certainly not this easy. Kansas entered Monday night on a three-game skid, a run of mediocre basketball that had allowed in-state rival Kansas State (19-5, 8-3) to take a one-game lead in the Big 12 standings.
“When you get humbled like that,” Withey said, “every game matters more.”
On Monday morning, K-State rose up to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, while the Jayhawks dropped to No. 14. That made this night the first time KU had played K-State as the lower-ranked team since the Midwest Regional final in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. Maybe it was good karma, then, that former Kansas star Danny Manning was back in Allen Fieldhouse on Monday.
No, it wasn’t supposed to be this easy. But for 40 minutes, the Jayhawks looked like the Big 12’s elite team. The Fieldhouse was packed and feverish, the emotions intense, and by the end of the night, Kansas coach Bill Self could strut back to the locker room while the KU student section serenaded McLemore with an impromptu version of “Happy Birthday.”
In many ways, the Jayhawks’ most thorny challenge begins now. Kansas is back atop the Big 12 standings, tied with Kansas State at 8-3, and the owner of two precious wins against its in-state rival.
And now, game on. With seven conference games left, Kansas still has to make trips to Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor. And the path to a ninth-straight Big 12 title will still feature a few wide roadblocks.
But those questions can come later. For one joyous night in Jayhawk land, McLemore and Kansas found their mojo.
“We’re definitely a first-place team,” Withey said. “We see ourselves as one of the best teams in the nation, and that’s not gonna change. We lost three in a row, but we’re gonna spin that into a positive.”