Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: KU is playing better than ever, as evidenced by Sweet 16 stomping of Purdue

These games at Allen Fieldhouse tend to include these moments that you never can predict, but always know when you see them.

My editor is standing over my shoulder telling me we’re at the Sprint Center, but I know what I saw, and more than that know what I heard. So I’m telling him this was Allen Fieldhouse because I saw Kansas beat Purdue 98-66 in a Sweet 16 game Thursday with That Moment:

A breakout 360-degree dunk by Lagerald Vick, an in-and-out miss by Purdue, and then Josh Jackson looked Purdue’s best player in the eye, smiled, and buried a three-pointer — part of a, ahem, 77-33 closing run over the last 26 minutes.

Cue Jackson, staring down the Purdue bench, screaming, “Let’s (Something) Go!”

Cue the KU pep band.

Cue the noise.

Lots and lots of noise.

“Probably the loudest it’s been,” KU senior Landen Lucas said.

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Kansas will face Oregon here on Saturday for a spot in next week’s Final Four. This is the fourth time in seven years the Jayhawks have made it this far. They’ll play for their first Final Four since Thomas Robinson’s team in 2012, and are still alive for their first championship since Mario Chalmers’ shot in 2008.

They say every good team needs an identity, and this one has a few: terrifically talented, jaw-droppingly fast, and hard as granite.

“When we play on both ends of the floor like we have in this tournament,” Jackson said, “I do not think there is a team that can play with us.”

Kansas fans know better than to take anything for granted this time of year, but in a vacuum, most surely would’ve thought Purdue’s size and shooting to be a scarier matchup than Oregon’s athleticism. KU coach Bill Self seemed to confirm as much the other day, saying he picked Purdue out weeks ago as a potentially worrisome opponent.

But Self, for all his successes and Hall of Fame nomination, remains underrated as a preparer and game coach. Purdue did most everything it needed to win — take advantage in the post, hit spot-up threes, limit KU in transition — and never took control or led at any point over the last 24 minutes and 54 seconds.

Kansas had legitimate trouble when 7-foot-2 and 290-pound Isaac Haas got the ball in the post and went to his left shoulder, but Purdue’s national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan had as many turnovers as field goals. He’s skilled and tough, but too often Jackson used his quickness to go under Swanigan and steal or deny the entry pass.

Because for all that made Purdue a bad matchup for Kansas — and it was; that part was real — the Jayhawks made sure they were a worse matchup for Purdue.

The Boilermakers are big, and skilled, but also slow. They had no counter to Jackson’s athleticism, or the speed of Frank Mason, Devonte Graham or Vick. To win this game, Purdue probably needed to dominate the backboards, take away the Jayhawks’ assertiveness, and hope they missed shots. None of that happened.

Instead, this stands as one more overwhelmingly impressive performance for a team that has lost exactly four times this season — once without Jackson, once when the other team hit 18 three-pointers, once at West Virginia (they always lose at West Virginia), and once on Nov. 11.

Kansas defended the post, closed out to the three-point line, moved the ball to open shooters, and had just 10 turnovers.

The fear around this team has been all the close games, because sports are weird, and the ball bounces a different way sometimes, and can you really count on coming back from 14 down with fewer than 3 minutes to play?

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But this is twice in a row that KU has faced a worthy opponent and boot-stomped its throat in the closing minutes. This happened last weekend against Michigan State, a close game turning into a 20-point spread. Afterward, Landen Lucas mentioned KU hadn’t done that all year.

Well, against a better team in Purdue, KU was even better — a once-close game blown so wide open that Tyler Self and the other walk-ons came in with more than 2 minutes left.

There is no way to know how the rest of this tournament will play out, of course. Good feelings today can be soul-crushing losses before the weekend is over.

But if the goal is to have a talented, experienced, confident group that plays well together peaking at the most important time of the season, well, here they are.

The team that spent the last two weeks of the regular season ranked first in the nation is, somehow, playing better than ever.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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