Cliff Alexander stood just below the block and excitedly pointed up to the rim. Frank Mason stood nearly 20 feet away, surveying the floor from near the top of the key.
There is an art to throwing the lob pass, a specific blend of timing, communication and accuracy. There is also the art of deception, and for one possession on Friday afternoon, as No. 11 Kansas fought off Tennessee in an 82-67 victory, the deception belonged to Mason, the Jayhawks’ sophomore point guard.
It was early in the second half in the semifinals of the Orlando Classic, and Kansas was still finding a way to consistently solve Tennessee’s trapping zone defense. The Jayhawks led by nine points against a Volunteers team that kept fighting back, and for a moment, Mason took one dribble toward the elbow. His eyes locked with Alexander, Kansas’ raw freshman forward.
“Just point up to the rim,” Alexander would say, “he’s throwing it to me.”
Mason paused for a split-second, looked to his left to freeze the defense, then threw a two-handed lob pass to the rim, where Alexander was ready to snatch it from the air and punish the rim with a two-handed slam.
“I always look for the lob,” Mason said.
One possession later, Mason found Alexander for the exact same play.
“In the zone,” Mason explained, “The middle guy — once he steps up, I just look at that.”
The lob sequence was not necessarily representative of the Jayhawks’ overall performance on Friday. Tennessee pushed KU for close to 40 minutes, forcing 16 turnovers and tying the score at 62-62 with 6:49 left. But the lob attack did define two emerging truths about this Kansas team.
Mason, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, is growing into a more complete lead guard, one capable of a final line that included 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds. And Alexander, who has spent the first four games coming off the bench, is making a genuine case to start after scoring 16 points and grabbing four offensive rebounds in 20 minutes.
“He’s starting to get it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
One day before, after the Jayhawks’ victory over Rhode Island in the first round, Self spoke about his talented freshmen going through the usual adjustments to the college game. For now, Freshman swingman Kelly Oubre is still in a fog, trying to find his way. But Alexander appears to close, ready to break out at any moment.
“Kelly is going through it big time now, where he’s thinking instead of playing,” Self said. “And Cliff went through it big time, where he’s thinking instead of playing. And now he’s starting to get it.
“And when he learns how to use his body and play to angles, he’ll be a hard (guy to) guard in there, for sure.”
On Friday, Alexander paired with junior forward Perry Ellis to overwhelm a smallish Tennessee frontcourt. Ellis, who had 17 points in Thursday’s victory over Rhode Island, backed up that performance with a season-high 24 points and 13 rebounds, his second double-double in four games. The Jayhawks outrebounded the Volunteers 44-22, and they owned the offensive boards, snatching 18 offensive rebounds and piling up 18 second-chance points.
“We got pushed around tonight,” Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. “Those are some big, strong, physical kids.”
The Jayhawks, though, needed nearly 37 minutes before they could breathe easy. After building a 40-33 lead at halftime and stretching it to 53-40 in the opening minutes of the second half, the Volunteers scratched back into the game with a 13-1 run.
“I thought Frank did a great job down the stretch,” Self said. “We made our free throws, but the big thing is we got stops.”
After Tennessee tied the score, the Jayhawks locked in on defense, holding the Volunteers scoreless on three straight possessions. Mason, who played a team-high 39 minutes, recorded the most crucial steal of the game, setting up Alexander for a three-point play that pushed the Jayhawks’ lead back to 67-62.
“He’s good down in the paint,” Mason said of Alexander. “I think he’s coming along pretty well.”
Now the Jayhawks will enjoy a day off Saturday before facing No. 20 Michigan State at noon Sunday for the title.
The Jayhawks, of course, would like to tote a trophy back to Lawrence, but Friday was about taking another step toward reaching their ceiling. As Alexander and Self sat together at the postgame press conference, somebody asked Self about Alexander’s freakish strength for a 19-year-old freshman.
“I don’t think he’s that strong,” Self said, smiling at Alexander. “But he is blessed to have a college-ready body, right off the bat. I don’t know if we’ve had anybody with a college-ready body. But he is doing a good job of getting on the offensive glass, because he is smart enough to know that if he gets the rebound on offense, he can actually shoot it.”
Self then chided Alexander for his lack of defensive rebounds, and Alexander nodded along, smiling as his coach spoke. At some point in the near future, Alexander will likely be starting for Kansas. But for the moment, he isn’t. And for Alexander, that’s fine.
“(I’m) just getting more comfortable,” Alexander said, “doing what coach is telling me to do.”