Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Jayhawks show they are as much blue-collar as blue-blood

Frank Mason, right, stands his ground after being bumped by Michigan State’s Miles Bridges during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game in Tulsa.
Frank Mason, right, stands his ground after being bumped by Michigan State’s Miles Bridges during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game in Tulsa. rsugg@kcstar.com

Miles Bridges is 6-foot-7, 230 pounds of both balletic footwork and athletic fury.

That makes him a fine symbol of a Michigan State program known under Tom Izzo for its grit and what they call in football playing to “the echo of the whistle.”

Then throw in that feisty former Spartan Draymond Green addressed the team before its NCAA Tournament game against Kansas on Sunday at the BOK Center.

And consider that Izzo said after KU’s 90-70 win that his team was determined to go at former recruit Josh Jackson thusly:

“We wanted to beat his brains in today,” he said, playfully.

KU's Josh Jackson grew up in Michigan and played with several Michigan State Spartans, including Miles Bridges. MSU coach Tom Izzo "begged" Jackson to stay close to home. Kansas faces Michigan State in the NCAA second round Sunday.

Then you get an idea of the mentality the Midwest top-seeded Jayhawks were confronted with in the victory that catapulted them to the Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center, where they’ll face No. 4 seed Purdue on Thursday.

“Nothing remotely dirty at all,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, an Izzo fan. “Just hard-playing.”

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That line can get blurry in the eye of the beholder, though, and it also can be a chicken-and-egg matter to understand who does what first to whom … especially when there’s obvious yapping going on.

But no doubt Michigan State set out to intimidate KU.

And maybe no moment spoke to the folly of that more than when Bridges twice thrust his chest into 5-11 guard Frank Mason after a first-half layup by Mason gave KU a 21-20 lead.

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Mason, of course, is not merely a finalist for numerous national player of the year awards. He’s also considered by Self to be among the toughest players in KU’s storied history.

So he recoiled not an inch.

Then he stood face to face with Bridges as they stared at each other in an image reminiscent of two heavyweights at a weigh-in.

Call it coincidence, but within the next three minutes, Kansas took a lead it never surrendered … even if it did get whittled down to one before the Jayhawks pulled away in the second half.

That was about the time Bridges yelled, “Get up, boy” after a missed shot by Mason — a moment before KU went on a 13-4 run to start putting it away.

“I think that’s silly if you try to intimidate Frank,” KU senior big man Landen Lucas said, smiling.

With a laugh, junior guard Devonte Graham added, “My boy Frank is not going for none of that … He thinks he can guard LeBron (James), so nobody’s going to intimidate him.”

The Kansas men's basketball team defeated Michigan State 90-70 in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2017, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

And that is a major part of the DNA of this team, maybe even what defines it.

KU has forged this season on a find-a-way mindset, which showed up among other ways in winning by six points or fewer in eight of its 16 Big 12 victories.

It’s a characteristic Self sees as separating this from many of his teams.

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“I complain all the time about (teams) being soft, but I think historically we’ve had pretty tough teams (when) you compare it to everybody else,” he said. “But if you compare it to elite-level teams, I’m not sure that we’ve always been tough enough.”

This one, though, has all the earmarks Self wants to see.

That includes Jackson, who worked his way through what Self called being too “juiced” early against a program that had wanted him desperately and Bridges and others he wanted to impress.

But after missing his first three shots, Jackson hit nine of his last 13 to finish with 23 points, including many highlight-worthy ones.

Kansas freshman Josh Jackson led all scorers with 23 points in the Jayhawks' 90-70 victory over Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2017, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Then there was Mason with 20 and Graham with 18 and Lucas with 10 points and 11 rebounds — including nine in the first half as the Spartans were managing 14 as a team.

While Dwight Coleby filled in admirably when Lucas got in foul trouble, in some ways Lucas’ hard-hat work was the most telling aspect about a KU team that should be known as much for being blue-collar as blue-blood by now.

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“Yeah, I hope so. We work hard, too, and we get on the glass and we like to be physical too,” Lucas said. “I don’t think any team is going to out-work us, and that’s something that starts with me, doing the small things and the dirty work inside.

“I just try to come out and set the tone. And I think we as a team did a pretty good job of doing exactly what their game plan probably was to do to us.

“And that’s just get after it, do the little things, do the dirty work and do it well.”

There were, of course, moments when KU could have been more poised.

Even as Jackson got more attuned to the game between the teams than his own against Bridges, he had a few lapses.

And while Lagerald Vick’s technical foul seemed to be flimsy, Self allowed as how he must have “lost his mind there for a little bit,” or it wouldn’t have been called.

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Just the same, KU demonstrated anew the pivotal trait of mental toughness when it needed it most.

“We’re not going to back down from anybody or let anybody punk us,” Lucas said.

And they didn’t even need a pep talk from Green to have that mindset.

“We didn’t need any extra stuff to get us going for this. That’s their thing,” Lucas said, smiling. “They felt like they needed to bring somebody in to get them motivated.

“We were fine and ready to go with our normal coaching.”

Ready to absorb the best Michigan State had — and keep making the case that its tougher than the rest, too.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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