Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff: Kansas should have college basketball’s attention after 98-66 victory over Purdue

Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham (4) and the rest of the bench celebrated a three-pointer by Jayhawks forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) in the closing moments during KU’s 98-66 win Thursday in a Midwest Region semifinal at Sprint Center.
Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham (4) and the rest of the bench celebrated a three-pointer by Jayhawks forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) in the closing moments during KU’s 98-66 win Thursday in a Midwest Region semifinal at Sprint Center.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan got chatty with Kansas’ Landen Lucas early in the second half, and that was a time for the Boilermakers to talk. They cut a seven-point halftime deficit to four, then to three, and Swanigan’s three-pointer made it 53-51 with 16  1/2 minutes remaining.

A few minutes later, Josh Jackson had the ball at the top of the key with Swanigan guarding him, stepped back and buried a three-pointer.

This occurred on the possession after Lagerald Vick’s breakaway 360 slam, and a 98-66 rout few had expected was on.

Purdue entered the game as the Big Ten champion by two games. The Boilermakers had taken down Iowa State in the second round. They had Kansas’ attention.

The Jayhawks should have college basketball’s attention after Thursday.

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They turned in a remarkable display of skill and athleticism, and the outcome stands with the most impressive KU victories of the season: Duke on a neutral floor, at Kentucky, Baylor twice, now this, a beatdown of the Big Ten champion that allowed Bill Self to clear his bench and for the many, many Kansas fans to go into the “Rock Chalk” chant with 2 minutes remaining.

Meanwhile, the rest of the NCAA Tournament is unfolding as advertised, March Madness and all.

Gonzaga, the top seed in the West, survived a last-ditch three-point attempt to hold off West Virginia. Arizona was stunned by Xavier.

Earlier at the Sprint Center, Oregon and Michigan engaged in a tense battle, with the Ducks requiring a Derrick Walton Jr. miss to assure a one-point victory.

Kansas? After the expected first-round walkover, the Jayhawks beat the Big Ten’s best program (Michigan State) by 20 points and the conference champion by 32.

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In both games, there was a moment early in the second half when the game appeared to hang in the balance. And both times, the Jayhawks played the part of the Road Runner and — Beep! Beep! — were gone.

Next up, Oregon in the regional final at 7:49 p.m. Saturday, and even more Kansas fans will be in the building frothing at the prospect of a Final Four. Purdue coach Matt Painter, unsurprisingly, believes this could be a close game, if it wasn’t in Kansas City.

“On a game where you get a neutral site anything can happen,” Painter said. “They’re going to play a good Oregon team and it is here in Kansas City. (Kansas) has earned that right.”

It may have been among the less-neutral crowds in recent tournament history, and once Kansas gets rolling — with Vick’s dunk for instance — the place comes unhinged and the Jayhawks feed off that energy. Players didn’t shy away from calling Sprint Center a home game leading up to Thursday.

Frank Mason and Devonte Graham, with 26 points each, felt it. So did Jackson with 15 points, 12 boards and four steals.

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This is how it looked to Purdue forward Vincent Edwards.

“They’re catching lobs, shooting step-back threes, and it’s tough. It opens up everything,” he said. “Everything’s falling, they’re feeding off their crowd energy and you’re stuck.”

But it also was felt on the defensive side. Lucas played 20 minutes and finished with two points and four rebounds. But in those 20 minutes when he was guarding Swanigan, he was a 6-foot-10 bundle of effort, helping hold Swanigan to seven rebounds.

“You look at Landen’s stats and he got only four rebounds,” Self said. “But the story is Caleb got only seven. And if you had told me before the game that would be the give and take I would have sold out for that.”

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There’s something about Lucas’ game. In the first half, when Kansas took its first lead and built some momentum, Lucas was in the middle of those baskets.

Entry passes to him brought a double team from the Purdue bigs. Lucas is valuable player, but the Boilermakers might have wanted to take their chances on Lucas, with an 8.2 scoring average, making a move to the basket.

Instead, Lucas, perhaps the Jayhawks’ smartest player, knew when the double team came, someone was open.

The first time, it was Svi Mykhailiuk from the corner for the three-pointer that gave the Jayhawks their first lead at 36-35.

On the next possession, same thing. Entry pass to Lucas and a double team. This time, Lucas found Jackson, who began in the corner and started making his way to the bucket. This assist led to the first-half highlight, a Jackson slam.

So, everybody pitched in on this one. It takes such an effort to beat the Big Ten champ by 32, and it if continues, it’s difficult to see a team that can handle the Jayhawks.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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