Perhaps sensing a loaded question, Kansas freshman Josh Jackson smiled broadly Wednesday in a crowded Sprint Center locker room. He was asked to choose between KU guard Frank Mason and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan for college basketball’s player of the year.
“I’m gonna say Frank,” Jackson said, simply.
The 6-foot-8 Jackson, who is listed as a guard but also has helped out at forward and even in the post this season, answered similarly when quizzed about what’s been deemed a major storyline for Thursday’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 battle between the top-seeded Jayhawks (30-4) and No. 4-seed Boilermakers (27-7). The Midwest Regional semifinal will tip off around 8:39 p.m.
That’d be the importance of KU’s contingent of guards versus the Boilermakers’ bigs.
“I think speed beats size every time, every day of the week,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to come out, play our game and make it a fast-paced game.”
Swanigan, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound sophomore, and 7-foot-2, 290-pound junior Isaac Haas have been getting a lot of attention this week, making some wonder if KU’s guards — a group that includes starters Jackson, Big 12 player of the year Mason, Devonté Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk — will carry a chip on their shoulders into the game.
“Not really. I mean they are huge, so you’ve kind of got to talk about their size,” Graham said. “I feel we get talked about a lot, actually, maybe not this game size-wise. The inside matchup is what everybody’s looking at. We are still going to be in the game, play the same way and hopefully we can come out with a win.
“We’re going to play like we have been playing.”
KU coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks fans, who figure to fill a majority of the seats at Sprint Center, would assuredly love for KU’s guards to produce as much or even more than they did in first- and second-round games last weekend in Tulsa, Okla.
Jackson scored 23 points in Sunday’s 90-70 victory over Michigan State and 17 points in Friday’s 100-62 win over UC Davis on combined 17-of-28 shooting — a sizzling 60.7 percent. He also was 3 of 6 from three-point range and perfect in his three attempts from the free-throw line.
Graham scored 18 versus the Spartans and 16 against the Aggies on combined 11-of-17 shooting — an even better 64.7 percent mark. He hit 8 of 13 threes.
Mason scored 20 points against Michigan State with five assists and no turnovers and 22 points against UC Davis on combined 14-of-30 shooting (46.7 percent). He was 11 of 12 from the line and made 3 of 11 threes.
Mykhailiuk chipped in nine points against Michigan State and 16 versus UC Davis on 8-of-15 shooting, 3 of 10 from three.
The only guard who struggled was first-off-the-bench Lagerald Vick, who had seven points against the Spartans and three against UC Davis while hitting 4 of 13 shots — 1 of 4 from three.
Any way one slices it, that’s a lot of production from KU’s guards.
“It is kind of funny how it is kind of overshadowing … there’s a lot of talk about their strength,” KU forward Landen Lucas said of the Boilermakers, “but obviously our strength in our guards is second to none. We’re looking forward to taking advantage of those guards doing their thing as much as I’m sure they are trying to take advantage of their inside game.”
Self and his players have mentioned Purdue’s backcourt players, such as P.J. Thompson, who hit a big three that gave the Boilermakers a late lead in an 80-76 second-round win over Iowa State, while giving major props to Big Ten player of the year Swanigan, Haas and 6-8 225-pound Vincent Edwards, who has averaged 21.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while hitting 19-of-30 shots (63.3 percent) in tourney games against Vermont and Iowa State.
“In all honesty that needs to be the case,” Self said of Jackson’s assertion that speed — in this case of KU’s guards — trumps the size of Purdue. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it plays out that way.”
KU’s backcourt players have been praised by Purdue quite a bit this week.
“I’ve been impressed with obviously their guard play,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said. “We have a tough challenge playing Kansas, a very athletic and quick team that puts a lot of people in binds with their ability to break people down off the dribble and their pressure defense.”
KU’s guards concede Purdue front court could provide problems.
“We haven’t seen a team like this before, not this year, not a team with everything that they have,” Jackson said, “We’ve seen a team with bigs. We’ve seen a team with shooters. I don’t think we’ve seen a team with both together in one.”
Jackson has scored 547 points this season, which ranks third on KU’s career freshman scoring chart behind Ben McLemore (589 points in 2013) and Andrew Wiggins (597 in 2014).
“I think we’ve all been playing pretty well. I think we all can play a lot better,” Jackson said. “I don’t think I’ve had a game this season where I’ve put it all together in a game.”
If the team is clicking, he feels the Jayhawks can advance to Saturday’s Elite Eight game against the winner of Thursday’s 6:09 p.m. Michigan-Oregon game.
“In my opinion, yes,” Jackson said asked if KU had the best team in the remaining field of 16. “We have a lot of things other teams don’t have. For one, we have Frank Mason. Two, we have guys who know their roles really well and three, we’ve got an amazing coach.”