Perry Elllis: Kansas can improve
Not long after Kansas’ 102-74 demolition of Baylor on Saturday afternoon, Bill Self sat inside Allen Fieldhouse and yearned to play journalist for a moment. He was already looking forward to Monday night and a potentially historic matchup with Oklahoma. He was already gazing ahead to a KU season where the limits appear fungible and the ceiling keeps being raised.
On the first day of the Big 12 season, the second-ranked Jayhawks had delivered a systematic takedown of a top-25 team, throttling No. 23 Baylor from the start, toying with them for a stretch, then burying them in the final minutes. In two days, this Kansas team will likely be ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in nearly five years, and when the ball is tipped Monday night against Oklahoma, Allen Fieldhouse could play host to one of college basketball’s rarest matchups: No. 1 vs. No. 2.
The Jayhawks (12-1) entered Saturday No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. The Sooners, who beat Iowa State 87-83 on Saturday, are ranked No. 3. And Michigan State, the reigning No. 1, suffered its first loss at Iowa on Tuesday night. Sitting in a postgame press conference, Self brushed aside the talk about No. 1, but he had something else on his mind. Kansas and Oklahoma were flip-flopped in the latest coaches poll, with the Sooners No. 2 and Kansas No. 3, and another possibility intrigued Self.
“It doesn’t happen very often where No. 1 plays No. 1,” Self said. “Because if OU wins, they’ll be one in the coaches poll. So one vs. two happens, but one vs. one, how often does that happen? I think that makes for a pretty interesting story.”
Self paused for a moment.
“How many guys are mad at me because I just stole your story line?” he said.
Kansas’ dominance Satuday was such that it rendered a victory in a Big 12 opener into prologue for a matchup to come. The Jayhawks won their league opener for the 25th straight year, beginning their quest for a 12th straight Big 12 title. They improved to 14-0 all-time against Baylor in Lawrence. Junior guard Wayne Selden continued to be the personification of a video-game cheat code, finishing with a game-high 24 points while hitting 9 of 16 from the floor.
“I think there’s no doubt who the No. 1 team in the nation is,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
If you are a Kansas fan, you can dream a little bigger. For the first time since Feb. 14, 2011, Self has led his program back atop the polls, a benchmark that means little in the moment, but can serve as a signpost for a program that has designs of staying at the top in April. Can Kansas get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012? Is this team capable of winning it all for the first time since 2008? It is the first week of January, of course, but performances like Saturday will surely turn some into believers.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” said sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham. “This early in the season, you can’t really say, ‘We’re the No. 1 team, we’re the best team.’ Other teams have been losing and we’re playing pretty well right now. So we might as well be happy with it and know that guys are going to coming for it.”
The Jayhawks shot 53.7 percent, drilling 11 of 19 from three-point range and improving their season percentage to 46 percent. They built a 24-4 lead in the opening minutes. They became the first team to score 80 points on Baylor in 61 games — and they hit that mark with more than six minutes left.
“I can’t believe we scored that many points,” Self said, “because I didn’t think we were really doing that well offensively.”
The Jayhawks also had to withstand foul trouble from two of their most indispensable players. Senior forward Perry Ellis, who had 17 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes, picked up his second foul with 7:11 left in the first half and headed to the bench. Guard Frank Mason picked up his third foul in the opening minute of the second half and spent the next six and a half minutes on the bench.
With Mason on the sideline, the Jayhawks received a sterling performance from their other point guard, Graham, who finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting with four assists, three steals and zero turnovers. In all, Kansas’ three starting guards combined for 50 points, 12 assists and two turnovers.
“It’s contagious,” Self said.
Senior forward Hunter Mickelson started his sixth straight game and finished with seven points, six rebounds and three blocks, tying a season high and offering a spark on the defensive end. Mickelson’s third block ignited a fast break opportunity as Allen Fieldhouse roared its approval during a second-half run.
“I thought this was the best game he’s had,” Self said of Mickelson. “You know, seven points isn’t unbelievable production. But seven (points), six (rebounds) and three blocked shots — I thought he was active. I do think his length bothers people.”
For close to 40 minutes, the Jayhawks had flashed all their weaponry: A beast of a backcourt; a steady scorer at power forward; a frontcourt by committee that is holding its own, even as freshmen Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg work through growing pains. This was a victory that could send a statement to the rest of the Big 12. This was a Kansas team, in other words, that looked like No. 1.
“I’d rather be there at the end then now,” Self said. “But I think it could be nice."
Rustin Dodd: @rustindodd