Kansas was ridiculously good Thursday night. And unless some team can figure out how to defend the Jayhawks better than Purdue did, the Jayhawks are going to be a nearly impossible out the rest of the way in the NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawks won by 32 points in a Sweet 16 game, beating the Boilermakers 98-66. Kansas scored 47 points in the first half, then upped the ante with a 51-point outburst in the second. Frank Mason played ridiculously well, Devonté Graham got ridiculously hot in the second half and freshman Josh Jackson was all over the glass with 12 rebounds to go with 15 points.
Believe it or not, Purdue actually got off to a good start, building an early 18-11 lead. But once the Jayhawks got rolling, Purdue coach Matt Painter could have used a boilermaker. Or something even stronger.
There are so many good players on the Jayhawks, players who could have gone anywhere to play college basketball. And it’s probably unfair to continue to single out Mason.
But my goodness, what a player.
He played 35 minutes Thursday the way Placido Domingo performs 35 minutes of opera. Fans don’t cheer for Mason, they yell “bravo.” He is captivating at all times — offensively, defensively and in the rare moments when he’s sitting on the bench. I don’t know exactly what he’s doing over there, but it’s fun to watch.
Yet when I asked Mason about his play, about his chemistry with Graham and all that goes into that, he started talking about the KU reserves who went into the game in the final minutes. Then, asked to talk about his connection with Graham, he made it all about Graham.
“It was great to see Devonté do the things he did,” Mason said. “He was great out there, probably one of the best games I’ve seen him play and I’m just happy for him.”
You scored 26 points. You made 9 of 11 shots. You handed out seven assists and grabbed seven rebounds. You’re 5-foot-for-crying-out-loud-11 and you’re a giant of college basketball. You made a real giant, Purdue’s 7-2, 290-pound Isaac Haas, gasp for air as he tried to find you zipping in and out of the crowd. You had the Boilermaker fans begging for no mas.
“You know he’s never going to talk about himself,” Graham said of Mason. “But he played a great game. I think the game slowed down for us and, you know, we were being aggressive and just taking the open shots they were giving us.”
Kansas was great in its half-court offense and dynamic, again, in transition. When Mason and Graham start to roll, they barrel down the floor in world-record time. But they don’t divert their eyes. They are aware of everything that is happening, of the location of every teammate and the position of every defender.
By now, Mason knows Bill Self’s system better than Self’s assistants. Heck, maybe better than Self.
Get open, he’ll find you. Set a screen, you’ll be rewarded. Make an extra pass and Mason will not forget.
He scored his 26 against Purdue while taking only 11 shots. But when you rarely miss, 11 shots can transform into a bunch of points.
“I think the biggest difference with Frank is that he’s looking to score more now,” Self said. “He’s always been a guy that when we’ve struggled, we’ve relied on him to go get it for us. And now I think he’s putting himself in a position to make more plays for himself and for others. He’s a total guard.”
There comes a point where it’s difficult to come up with new superlatives for Mason. Fortunately, we’re not at that point. There are probably three more games of superlatives left and it just so happens that Kansas needs just three more wins to capture its fourth national championship and first since 2008.
After Thursday’s performance, the Jayhawks look like a favorite because I’m not sure who can effectively guard these KU guards, including Svi Mykhaliuk, and Jackson.
“They have one of the best backcourts in the country,” Purdue guard P.J. Thompson said. “I think they proved it all year and tonight they had a great game.”
Ultimately, all Purdue could do was get out of the way. A game that had some national player of the year curiosity with sophomore center Caleb Swanigan playing the potential role for Purdue turned into a CBS advertisement for Mason. Swanigan did little in the first half and had a decent second half, when it didn’t much matter.
Mason, meanwhile, was as good as good gets.
Perhaps Oregon, which gets the Jayhawks in the South Regional championship game Saturday night, will devise a better defensive plan. KU was able to get anywhere it wanted and any shot it wanted against Purdue. The Jayhawks turned up their transition game and left the Boilermakers wondering where they went.
Painter was asked if KU can be stopped.
“If they play like they did the second half they can't,” he said. “You cannot let them get in transition. If they’re going to continue getting those opportunities and shoot the way their guards shot tonight, then they can’t be stopped.”
Thanks to the Purdue coach for helping me think of the word that best describes KU’s performance Thursday.