No. 1 seeded Kansas is headed to its home-away-from-home just two victories shy of its first Final Four berth since 2012 and third in the 14-year Bill Self era.
“I’m excited. Why wouldn’t we be excited to play in our hometown, in our home state, in front of the best fans in the world?” KU junior guard Devonté Graham said after scoring 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the Jayhawks’ 90-70 second-round NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional win over Michigan State on Sunday.
“”I’m excited to get back and redeem myself in the Sprint Center, I guess you could say,” Graham said.
The Jayhawks’ victory overMSU assured KU a spot in Thursday’s Sweet 16 contest against No. 4-seed Purdue at the Sprint Center, where KU was bounced by TCU in a Big 12 tournament quarterfinal game on March 9.
“We get a chance to play 35 miles from Lawrence and I think it’s just great for the fans and for us to get a chance to play there for the Sweet 16. So we’re all excited,” said senior guard Frank Mason. He had 20 points (8 of 8 from the line) and five assists against no turnovers on a night freshman guard Josh Jackson led all scorers with 23 points.
Detroit native Jackson, who grew up a fan of Michigan State, was one point better than one of his best friends, MSU freshman Miles Bridges, who had 22 points and eight boards.
Senior Landen Lucas scored 10 points and grabbed 11 boards, while junior Dwight Coleby contributed three points with four boards and a steal in nine crucial second-half minutes.
Coleby’s inside bucket off a rebound came in a 13-4 second-half run that increased a 54-53 lead at 12:14 to 67-57 with 8:06 to play.
The Jayhawks closed the game on a 36-17 run.
“It feels great, just one step closer to reaching our goal,” junior forward Coleby said of heading to the Sprint Center this week. “The homecourt advantage should help (with) everybody cheering for us. We have to feed off their energy.”
Lucas — he personally thanked Coleby for keeping alive his senior season — had nine points and four rebounds the first half as KU led 40-35 at the break. The Spartans closed the half on a 6-0 run, putting a dent into the Jayhawks’ comfy 11-point margin.
“This is what we wanted so we are finally heading back home,” Lucas said of Sprint Center. “This crowd was great (at BOK Center). I mean it was mainly Jayhawk fans but we know the Sprint Center is going to be rocking for us.”
KU coach Bill Self said a strong desire to play in Sprint Center might have affected the Jayhawks negatively early on in Sunday’s game.
“I felt like our guys played loose for the most part, just too excited (in trailing 22-21 with 7:11 left in the half). “There was some pressure. You work your butt off all year long so you can hopefully play a regional in Kansas City. You’ve got to do the things to get there. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have an advantage or anything like that. You’d think it would be a nice reward to having a good season.
“I think our guys played a little tight because of that and Josh and Michigan State having recruited him so hard. He knows all those guys. I think he was a little bit too juiced early himself,” Self added of the 6-8 Jackson who had nine points on 4-of-9 shooting the first half.
Jackson opened that pivotal 13-4 run with a bucket and foul shot and three.
KU survived a mistake by Lagerald Vick, who slammed at 7:27 off a lob from Graham to give the Jayhawks a 69-59 lead. After the slam, he apparently barked at a Spartan player was called for a technical. Cassius Winston hit two free throws and Matt McQuiad hit a three to cut KU’s lead to 69-64 at 7:11.
However, KU went on a 8-1 run to build the lead to at that time a game high 12 points, 77-65, at 5:45. Lucas had a bucket to open that run and make it 71-64. Then after a Bridges free throw, Mason scored, Jackson hit two free throws and Jackson scored another bucket. KU grabbed a 13-point lead at 4:41 on a three by Graham to make it 80-67.
“It was a hard game to coach in large part because nobody listened to me,” Self joked. “And they (Jayhawks) were shooting too fast and the pace was too fast and everything, but we're better when we have pace. And certainly these guys have all been there before, but I think they'd be the first to tell you it was a fun game. It was a fast-paced game. The pace was faster than the final score indicated even in number of points.
“And they (Spartans) go downhill when they get possession as well as anybody. But we did a good enough job in transition defense, and then we did a great job defensive rebounding and to me having guys make hard shots. We extended our lead by step-back threes, and-ones. They were hard plays. Certainly that's a tribute to the skill set over here," Self added.
KU hit 53.1 percent of its shots (8 of 20 from three) for a 53.1 percent. MSU hit 43.9 percent of its shots (8 of 23 threes). The Jayhawks made 14 of 15 free throws.
“It was a tough battle,” Lucas said. “It was good for us to get prepared moving forward.”