LAWRENCE — There are a number of ways that Sherron Collins would describe what he did to the California Golden Bears on Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse: Crack 'em. Break 'em. Step on their neck.
The best teams perform this act consistently, and until Kansas' showdown with Pac-10 favorite Cal, the Jayhawks hadn't been asked to do it against a team with comparable talent. Certainly, they didn't put a less-talented Michigan team away on Saturday, squandering a 21-point first-half lead and winning by just 11.
But on Tuesday, in KU's 84-69 victory over Cal, the top-ranked Jayhawks took a close game and blew it open in the second half. You knew the Golden Bears were officially Fieldhouse broken when KU guard Tyshawn Taylor stole the ball and made a nifty bounce pass to Sherron Collins, who nailed a three-pointer from the wing to give the Jayhawks a 75-63 lead.
That's when Cal coach Mike Montgomery called timeout, when KU's players engaged in a series of ever-chic flying chest-bumps. Walk-on Chase Buford bumped Collins, Tyrel Reed found Taylor and the Morris twins caromed into each other, and the 16,300 fans could stop being Nervous Nellys.
"We get teams down, we just don't step on their neck and take them out of the game," Collins said. "That's what Coach (Bill Self) brought up in the huddle: 'Don't let them get back in the game. Let's put it on their throat.' That's what we did."
The Jayhawks (11-0) were able to take the next step as a team because Taylor finally played like a true point guard, allowing Collins to play off the ball and focus on making shots. Taylor played what will likely go down as his finest game as a Jayhawk, scoring 13 points and dishing out 7 assists with just 1 turnover. In the four games since Taylor was benched in favor of Elijah Johnson, Taylor has 24 assists with just 2 turnovers.
"I'm trying to be aggressive but smart at the same time," Taylor said.
Collins took advantage of the new Taylor against Cal, leading KU with 17 points.
"I've seen him play good," Collins said, "but I've never seen him play like this in these big games."
Despite Cal not being a ranked team, this was a big one to the Jayhawks. To understand why, all you had to do was check the video board five minutes before tipoff. Tuesday night's Texas-Michigan State score stood frozen, and at that point, the Longhorns were up by 7. They would go on to beat the Spartans 79-68 for their second win over a top-10 opponent in four days. Texas beat North Carolina 103-90 on Saturday and picked up six first-place votes in this week's Associated Press poll.
How the No. 2 team in the country is playing in late December wouldn't be such a big deal if the Longhorns weren't KU's Big 12 rival. The Jayhawks will play a Big Monday game Feb. 8 at Texas, and the teams appear destined to meet in the Big 12 Tournament championship game and possibly deep in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm looking forward to playing them," Taylor said. "I think honestly we're the two best teams in college basketball right now."
Taylor and Collins said KU came out wanting to prove that it deserved the No. 1 ranking. The nonconference portion of the schedule has not gone according to plan; Big-name opponents Memphis, UCLA and Michigan are all down from where they were in previous seasons. The Golden Bears have fallen out of the top 25, too, but this one felt different. Cal had some players that could match KU athletically.
"I definitely think it was a statement game," Taylor said, "to show this is why we're No. 1. Our schedule hasn't been the toughest, but when it's time to step up, we will."
It was certainly time when the Golden Bears led 46-42 early in the second half.
"We took in a lot of people saying we aren't worthy of being No. 1," Collins said. "More flames to our fire. We took it personal."
Check J. Brady McCollough's KU blog at blogs.kansas.com/jayhawk. Reach him at jmccolloughwichitaeagle.com.