TULSA — There’s a lot to like about Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawks aren’t blessed with overpowering height in the low post, but in this setting, it’s guard play that rules the day. KU has terrific guards, dynamic wing players and versatility throughout the roster.
The only real knock against this Kansas team is a lack of depth. This club goes only seven deep.
But Sunday, just when it looked like that lack of depth was starting to get into KU’s legs, just when Michigan State seemed poised to take control of their second-round game at the BOK Center, the opposite happened.
KU pulled away from a tense, back-and-forth affair to a stress-free finish, a 90-70 victory in the Midwest Regional that sends the Jayhawks to Kansas City for a Sweet Sixteen date with Purdue.
“I think depth could be an issue,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I do, if they get in foul trouble.”
No. 1 seed Kansas (30-4) led by 11 late in the first half, but 8-seed Michigan State cut it 69-64 with seven minutes left.
That’s when Frank Mason dished an assist to Landen Lucas for a slam, then pulled up for a jump shot to rebuild the KU lead to 73-65. Two free throws by Josh Jackson, followed by a fast-break layup by Jackson and a 3-pointer by Devonte Graham extended the Jayhawks to an 80-67 advantage with 4:41 left.
Even that wasn’t enough. Kansas got two more 3s from Graham, a layup from Mason and a dunk from Jackson and the lead suddenly was 20.
KU finished the game on a 21-6 run.
Kansas coach Bill Self applauded Jackson’s finish — he ended up with a game-high 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting — “But we’ve got three or four guys that can all do that, you know,” Self said. “And Josh deserves a ton of credit. He was great. Frank had 20 (points) and 5 (assists) and no turnovers, and Devonte’ (4-of-6 from 3-point range for 18 points) seemed like he made most things he looked at. And Landen had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds), and I thought Lagerald (Vick, seven points on 3-of-7 shooting) and Svee (Mykhailiuk, nine points on 3-of-5 shooting) were both good. So it was a good team effort.
“But you’re right. I do think in the tournament it’s so nice to have a player — or two or three — that when things don’t look good they can go score six points in three possessions when you really run bad offense. And that kind of happened with us tonight. We made some hard shots.”
Izzo said he thought 6-foot-10 senior Landen Lucas “was really tiring during that stretch when we cut it to five. (But) those two guards (Mason and Graham) aren’t going to tire no matter what.”
When Lucas sat down with his fourth foul with 6:43 to play, 6-9 junior Dwight Coleby came in and gave the Jayhawks instant energy, scoring three points and pulling down four rebounds and collecting one steal in his nine minutes.
“Dwight was the spark,” Graham said, “really the MVP of the second half for us.”
Other than Michigan State’s fade in the final seven minutes, the game was played at an extremely high level, a do-or-die postseason classic that was representative of two national champion and Naismith Hall of Fame coaches (Izzo’s already in; Self is a finalist this year).
“Bill and I have gone against each other for a long time, from the Tulsa days when we played and the year we won it (2000; Self’s TU squad made it to the Elite Eight before falling to North Carolina) to the Illinois days,” Izzo said, “and I have great respect for what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. And he’s got a chance.
“Bill’s always coached that way. I think my biggest objective in life is to make sure that we have consistency in our program. When you win 12 or 13 conference championships in a row, that speaks volumes. And not only in my mind should he be in the Hall of Fame, but he will be in the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so because that’s consistency over a period of time. It’s not a five-year run or a seven-year run.”
It’s something of a rarity for two coaches who own national titles to meet this early in the NCAA Tournament. The last two times it happened, it was Kansas (last year Self and KU beat Kevin Ollie and Connecticut; in 2013 Self and the Jayhawks beat Roy Williams and North Carolina). Most such meetings between coaching titans happen in the Final Four, the regional final or the regional semifinal.
In 2009, the year after Self won his national championship, he suffered a 67-62 loss to Izzo and the Spartans in the regional semifinal.
“You know, there’s a lot of guys out there that I think are hard to beat, and he’s at the top of the list,” Self said of Izzo. “I do think that they’re hard to beat, and they run a ton of stuff. And they obviously are tough and don’t give up easy baskets. You gotta earn everything. And, typical Big Ten, you know.
“But, you know, I enjoy (the matchups), and I’m sure he feels the same way, having Michigan State and Kansas compete against each other. It’s kind of grown into a little nice rivalry. You know, they beat us in the Sweet 16 a few years ago when they came from behind to get it. But I have the utmost respect for him. You know, there’s a lot of great guys that do it the right way in our business, but he’s certainly one of them.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.