NCAA Tournament

Jayhawks in good hands with Elijah Johnson

Tyshawn Taylor couldn’t see a television set or follow the progress of Kansas against Detroit while receiving fluids for dehydration.

But he wasn’t worried.

“I knew we were in good hands,” Taylor said.

Those were the hands of Elijah Johnson, the Kansas shooting guard who moved over to the point for what amounted to the majority of minutes in the Jayhawks’ 65-50 triumph over Detroit in Friday’s NCAA Tournament game. Kansas takes on Purdue around 7:40 tonight, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 in St. Louis.

“It felt good,” Johnson said. “It actually felt real good. I was comfortable.”

More so in the second half, when Johnson recorded both of his assists and didn’t commit a turnover after a zero-assist, three-turnover first half.

“That was encouraging for me to see because he hasn’t had a chance to do that that much,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

But Johnson can — and, as a senior next season, appears to be Taylor’s successor at the point. Johnson’s first year in the starting lineup in the shooting guard role has widened his perspective and helped his overall game.

“I never played off the ball, but I think that brought a lot to my game because I’ve learned how to move without the ball,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned how to get people open.”

Johnson came off the bench for his first two years, with his greatest value as a three-point specialist. But this season has been an education. For instance, when Johnson sets a back screen for Thomas Robinson, he becomes a scoring option when his man doubles the KU post man.

Johnson wasn’t sure about any of it as the year started. He knew the position he was being asked to play and trusted Self, but Johnson wasn’t sure precisely how to play next to Taylor.

Part of that is Taylor, who averages 17.1 points, is a scoring point guard. When Johnson scored 23 points against UCLA in the Maui Invitational semifinal, he started hearing that’s how it should always be. Only it wasn’t coming from the Kansas staff.

“I felt I had to score, and I was hearing, ‘You’ve got to score,’ Johnson said. “I wasn’t wise enough to not listen to the outside. I started to realize that I didn’t have to score. Once I got rid of that mind-set it helped my whole game.”

Johnson’s three-point percentage has hung in the low 30s most of the season, and because he was coming off a 40-percent beyond-the-arc year, he’s often been asked to explain his touch. But Johnson believes those queries are too narrow a focus.

“I would like to think if I didn’t make one three (against Detroit) I would have played good, and that’s what I want to think,” Johnson said.

Lately, that hasn’t been an issue. Johnson is riding his best three-game stretch of the season, with 26 points against Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament, 15 in a semifinal loss to Baylor and 15 against Detroit.

He’s made nine of 17 three-pointers in that stretch, with eight assists and four turnovers.

With Johnson’s season scoring average up to 9.8 points, he’s become the Jayhawks’ third scoring source behind Robinson and Taylor. It’s gotten to the point where teammates get mad when Johnson passes on open looks.

“Ty yells at me a lot when I don’t shoot the ball,” Johnson said. “It irritates him when I don’t.”

Johnson will be a focal point, especially on defense, against the Boilermakers. Purdue is an undersized team that spreads the floor in a motion offense and pulls bigs away from the basket. In the Big 12, Missouri and Iowa State play similar styles, and the Jayhawks lost to both this season.

Johnson was somewhat familiar with Purdue before watching film. A Gary, Ind., native, he understands basketball is as much a philosophy as a game in the Hoosier State.

“I have a feel for the game, a smell for the game, I enjoy the game, more than the average person,” Johnson said. “I just enjoy how basketball is supposed to be played. In Indiana they just don’t play basketball, they teach you how to play basketball.

“It’s not about going one-on-one, can you score 40, and not play defense on your man. It’s about the whole court. I learned that in Indiana.”

But Johnson didn’t stay there. His father, Marcus, and mother split up. Elijah moved in with his dad, and they moved to Las Vegas before Elijah started high school. Marcus sought a safer environment for his son.

“I got home from school and the house was packed up,” Johnson said. “Vegas is where we landed. I wouldn’t be here now if we didn’t move.”

At Cheyenne High, Johnson became a five-star prospect and selected Kansas over Oklahoma and Texas. Three years into his time with the Jayhawks he’s at the height of his college career with a strong desire to extend his season.

“There’s more to go,” Johnson said. “This team can win a championship.”