Vahe Gregorian

KU’s win over Northeastern guarantees nothing but hints that Jayhawks could be peaking

The public-service qualifier came seconds into Kansas coach Bill Self’s assessment of his team’s 87-53 dissection of Northeastern in a NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional first-round game on Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“All it is,” he said, “is one game.”

Against a vastly overmatched foe, as it happened, and despite the trendy notion that fourth-seeded KU was susceptible to an upset against the No. 13 seed Huskies and their three-point circus.

Instead, the Jayhawks muzzled the Huskies, who made just 16 of 57 field goals and were 6 of 28 from three-point range. And they put them in the rear-view mirror with a preposterous 50-16 advantage in the paint as Dedric Lawson romped for 25 points.

“I think they took us out of our own identity,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said, summing it up nicely.

So doing just what they should have done against a lesser opponent doesn’t suddenly override the season-long theme that this is a young team of capricious mood swings, one that has as much capacity to invigorate as exasperate.

Nobody likes the term “fool’s gold” more than Self, who chuckled at the idea that we now might know what to anticipate when KU plays next on Saturday against fifth-seeded Auburn, the Southeastern Conference tournament winner that survived a berserk ending to beat New Mexico State 78-77.

“I understand better what maybe we can expect tomorrow,” he said, smiling. “But after practice, who knows what that will mean for Saturday?”

Especially against an infinitely more athletic team that will challenge Kansas far more intensely on both ends of the court.

But if the whimsical nature of this KU team can’t be pronounced cured, at least you could see something forming here Thursday that bodes well.

A season of flux (Udoka Azubuike’s injury, Lagerald Vick’s departure, the Silvio De Sousa … stuff) left KU starting four freshmen and Lawson, who had never played in an NCAA Tournament before and went to bed early Wednesday night “so the morning could come faster.”

Not only wasn’t the moment too big for anyone, including K.J. Lawson, who came off the bench for 13 points, it also was marked by a certain cohesion and attention to detail in the game plan that has been less than a constant this season.

That, after all, is what made KU’s defense so thorny against the Huskies, who managed few uncontested looks with KU hands in their grills even when they made them.

That defensive-minded mentality is fundamental to what Self wants his teams to be.

“Everybody’s thinking big picture right now,” said KU freshman guard Quentin Grimes, who had a quiet day offensively after scoring in double figures in five of the previous seven games. “Nobody’s really tied up in themselves anymore.”

There might be more to unpack there from a player who labored so much of the season, but the gist of the point in this moment seems to mean this:

It looks a lot like buy-in to what Self is preaching, and, accordingly, like Self is reaching this team.

If that wasn’t evident in general Thursday, it was particularly so at two key pivot points.

With Kansas leading 22-19 during a timeout with 6 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first half, Self beseeched his team to stop settling for threes (the Jayhawks were 1 of 9 beyond the arc to that point) and attack inside. Presto, KU rattled off a 9-0 run to seize a 31-19 lead and go into halftime up 37-25.

But Kansas meandered into the first minutes of the second half, committing three turnovers in the first 2:55 as Northeastern cut the lead to seven, 37-30. Self simmered a moment.

“I thought Dedric had (Grimes) wide open on an uncontested lob the first possession of the half and he underthrew it by 10 feet. Terrible,” Self said.

Dedric Lawson called the state of mind “kind of lackadaisical, kind of comfortable,” but KU was promptly disabused of that outlook when Self took a timeout to rekindle their interest.

“I thought we were jacking around,” he said. “The halftime is long. And I still don’t know the guys totally understand the importance of every minute and every possession in an NCAA Tournament game. I felt like we allowed them to believe that they could certainly play with us and at that point in time, they definitely were.”

Then Grimes hit a three-pointer, what Self called the biggest basket of the game and Grimes’ only points of the night, to restore the lead to double-digits and unleash a 10-0 run that mushroomed into an 18-2 binge that put it away.

“I thought our guys were as locked in as they have been in a long time,” Self said.

He knows this is still a precarious state, of course, and that past performance is no guarantee of future success. For that matter, KU could play well against Auburn and lose.

But the flip side, to use another of Self’s favorite terms, is this:

Right when you’d hope to peak, Kansas responded Thursday exactly the way its Hall of Fame coach might have drawn it up. And Self seems to be imposing his considerable will on this team.

It was just one game, yes. But play with that mindset again and KU could be spending next week at Sprint Center, where anything could happen.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.