The most ho-hum and predictable of results, top-seeded Kansas’ 105-79 thrashing of 16th-seeded Austin Peay in NCAA Tournament play on Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena, was animated by the improbable curiosities surrounding it.
Here was guard Svi Mykhailiuk, who had scored 42 points in KU’s last 12 games, leading the way with 23.
Never mind that the court seemed longer and everything felt out of proportion to a jittery Mykhailiuk when the game started. “A big, big, big key to this team,” starter Devonte’ Graham suddenly would call him on a day Graham scored no points himself.
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Here, too, was seldom-seen Cheick Diallo, racking up nine points and three rebounds and running the floor and blocking a shot in just 7 minutes of play.
“I was not even nervous, because I like to play in the big game,” said Diallo, who had scored 25 points in the entire Big 12 season with his abundant promise limited by rawness, KU coach Bill Self says.
By the time it was over, Kansas would enter into what forward Landen Lucas compared to a “victory formation,” with reserves Tyler Self and Evan Manning inserted in the game.
And then Self applied the ultimate signature by turning toward the end of the bench and calling on Clay Young.
A surge of adrenalin seized Young, who joined the team as an invited walk-on last fall after being a lifelong KU fan, the sort who had dutifully scrawled in Kansas to win every NCAA Tournament bracket he ever filled out.
Now, Young, from Lansing, was playing in one of those very games.
“It’s what anyone growing up where I did would love to do,” he said.
That was the final luxury flourish in an otherwise unremarkable game distinguished by Self’s lavish use of the KU bench, and with it, some welcome seasoning and shrewd rationing of playing time for regulars.
All of which makes for an ideal-as-can-be baseline as the Jayhawks prepare to take on ninth-seeded Connecticut on Saturday.
They seek to escape the second round for the first time in three years with a team that is healthier and more whole dynamically than its recent predecessors.
No KU starter played more than Frank Mason’s mere 27 minutes, and Wayne Selden played just 19.
So KU is well-preserved after using the course of the season to earn the right to the top seed overall and thus to play Austin Peay — which KU’s reserves alone may well have been able to beat as the Jayhawks extended their winning streak to 15.
As it was, Kansas’ bench outclassed Austin Peay’s 45-19, highlighted by Mykhailiuk, Diallo and Lagerald Vick, who had a career-high seven points.
Not to mention Jamari Traylor, who didn’t score a point but Self suggested was “by far the best player in the first half because he changed the whole tempo and energy level.”
Self said, “Those guys kind of bailed us out.”
How much those efforts merely buoyed KU on Thursday and how much they portend for the Connecticut game (and beyond, should Kansas advance) remains to be seen.
At 6-feet-8, Mykhailiuk isn’t the nimble playmaker Mason and Graham are, but there’s room in any game for a guy who can hit four of five three-pointers and to whom the ball doesn’t stick and can rebound some, too.
Meanwhile, with Connecticut’s inside presence, don’t doubt that Self could need minutes in the frontcourt not only from Lucas and Traylor but also from Diallo and Carlton Bragg, who also played 9 minutes and has been ahead of Diallo.
An NCAA Tournament presence would be a fine turn for Diallo, who had been pegged for instant superstardom only to be brought along gradually by Self. The coach has seen improvement, but not enough to shake up the rotation.
This likely has been a challenge to Diallo, but he hasn’t let on either with his body language or his words.
“I don’t want to get mad; I don’t want to ask Coach why he doesn’t play me, because I’m a team player,” he said. “No, I’m not like that. I’m a team player.”
That said, Diallo was thrilled to get so much time on Thursday.
“I just felt, ‘Now is the time to play, Cheick,’ ” he said, adding “to show everyone I can play.”
On Thursday, all 15 players on the KU roster could say the same thing, with the starters exhaling and taking a supporting role down the stretch — cheering and urging on Manning, the younger Self and Young.
“Hopefully, we can get them back in there for another game,” Lucas said.
Even if no more victory formations are likely, whatever comes next was fortified by the circumstances of this one.
Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian