Nothing is more thrilling than knocking off the #1 team on a “buzzer-beater” (almost), and that’s exactly what the No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks did on Tuesday night.
It was hard for me to close my eyes and prepare for the next day of school. Just sitting there, I visualized Frank’s pull-up and smooth shot that splashed through the net. Wins like Tuesday embrace the success of Jayhawk basketball. Clawing to catch up in a game that, early, saw the Jayhawks fall so far behind. A game that, even though the team didn’t play their best, but they left it all on the court and it ended in a W.
The same narrative was conveyed in the Jayhawks’ gritty win over the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils. There’s Frank Mason, pushing like a bulldozer through the lane but finishing soft at the net. Kansas played the same way. The Jayhawks started off with a wall in front of them, but with the fantastic guard play of Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason, the score barrier between the two blue bloods was demolished by halftime. It was time for the Jayhawks to finish soft at the rim. Get some stops, make some free throws, and give it all they had were likely barked at the team from Bill Self in the locker room.
On Tuesday, Kansas started shaky. The officials, although, did not, as they led the game after the first media timeout. Nothing clicked for Kansas in the first eight minutes. Bad rebounding, terrible defense, and a struggle to put the ball through the rim plagued KU early. To make matters worse, the officials couldn’t stop pushing air through their whistles, and the Jayhawks found themselves down ten before the quarter mark.
We saw a similar start against Indiana. 2016-17 KU is like a 1923 automobile: it takes forever to get it started. The thrifty mechanic Perry Ellis was able to get that dusty vehicle started again back during his prime in the 1920’s. However, there is no Mr. Consistency this season to get the Jayhawks rolling again. Someone had to step up. That’s exactly what happened at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, as Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Josh Jackson got the Jayhawks going. Despite going 2-for-7 from the free-throw line and shooting under 20% from three, the Jayhawks only found themselves down five at the half. It is astonishing to me that the Jayhawks can play so horribly but still find themselves in the game. It was a good time for someone to prove that they are a leader to guide the Jayhawks in tough situations.
Josh Jackson exploded in the second half, scoring 11 of his 15 points after halftime. The freshman prospect couldn’t miss, netting 15 points before fouling out. Devonte’ Graham didn’t take the key out of the ignition. Cramps might have slowed the PG, but a slosh of Gatorade and a helping hand up prompted him to finish the task.
Kansas looked like zombies in the second half. This is not to say that they looked sluggish, but rather that they suddenly came alive. Jackson was the guy we always thought he would be; he was more than an asset. His hot shooting in the second half was key for the Jayhawks to take the lead for good. His attitude sparked the comeback, and his execution helped his team pull ahead.
The surprise of the night came with freshman center Udoka Azubuike. After being limited to a scarce seven minutes in Hawaii, he turned things around against Duke. Azubuike scored six points and collected 12 rebounds in 17 minutes on Tuesday night. His contribution to Kansas’s win can’t be overlooked. Although Azubuike is not a scorer, his rebounding, especially offensively, guided KU.
Frank Mason. Those are the only two words that mattered in the final five minutes. With ice in his veins, he was once again, able to piggyback the Jayhawks to a win. Kansas led 75-68 with two minutes left, but a 7-0 spurt from Duke tied the game with 20 seconds left. That’s just before Mason drained the game-winning fadeaway. With his 21 points and clutch shooting, it’s no wonder why everyone is so optimistic for “BIFM.” It was more than just offense for the senior guard, though. Mason defended National Player of the Year candidate Grayson Allen in the second half and completely shut him down. His smothering defense held one of the country’s top three-point shooters to just 1-for-7 from deep. Mason is already over 50 points in the first two games. Big things are to come from Mr. Mason in his final tournament run as a Jayhawk.
This is a gutsy Kansas basketball team. After flying all the way from Hawaii to New York and dealing with a six-hour time difference, it went out and out-played the nation’s top team. Kansas showed up lackluster to Honolulu, and it showed in the standings when the Jayhawks fell to 0-1. The Jayhawks just beat the best team in the nation. Does that mean they can beat anyone? I know that Duke was without its three star freshman. Let’s be honest, though. Would they really perform better than players like Luke Kennard, who put up an impressive 22 points? Or Grayson Allen, who was smothered by Frank Mason like he was an enchilada, but still put up 12 points? Duke is the real deal. The Blue Devils have so much room to improve, which could make them a force in the tournament.
Aside from Duke, the Jayhawks missed out a lot of opportunities for points. Josh Jackson bricked all four of his free throws, and the entire Jayhawk roster made just 47% from the charity stripe. The poor free-throw percentage equated to 9-19 from the line, 10 points that KU missed out on. Jackson was only able to play 18 minutes due to the quick whistles. Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg also were limited to fewer than 20 minutes. So when you hear the national media talking about how Duke can do better, just remember that the Jayhawks certainly can too.
Waking up on the morning after a win is so refreshing. With Kansas football kicking the can every weekend and the long summer without Kansas basketball (WUG last year), it was about time that the Jayhawk faithful celebrates.
This Kansas team might not have Perry Ellis, the handy mechanic, but they do have one thing: Perseverance.