Three games ago, entering the revenge matchup against the Powercats of Kansas State University, our season consisted of two parts. You had the 20-0 start, a team on a breath-taking pace taking no prisoners as they cruised through their schedule. Only a couple of close calls, against the Arizona Wildcats at home and USC and Georgia Tech on the road, even offered a potential L, as blowout victory was followed by blowout victory. Then you had the team that labored to a 4-3 stretch in the middle of conference play, three road losses mixed in between four wins, three of them inside the comforts of Allen Field House and the one road victory, in Boulder against the Colorado Buffaloes, came against the Big 12's last place team. We looked like a completely different combination of players during our 4-3 skid, a team that would struggle just to reach the Sweet 16.
The skid technically ended on a Wednesday night in Ames, Iowa, with us picking up a solid road victory against the Cyclones of Iowa State. We made our perimeter shots, Darrell Arthur had himself quite a nice night, and Iowa State simply couldn't keep up with the talent put out on the floor by the Jayhawks. But I would venture to say that we did not recapture our "mojo", if you will, until the ESPN Gameday crew paid a visit to Allen Field House.
Of course, along with Digger, Jay, Hubert and Reece came the Kansas State Powercats, providing an opportunity to end the skid against the same team that started it. And whatever inspired the team, whether it was Dicky V and the ESPN Gameday crew hanging out in Allen Field House, or a chance to jump back up to the top of the Big 12 standings with Texas' loss to Texas Tech, or a primetime national television audience checking out the Jayhawks, or a chance at revenge against the hated Powercats who had snapped a twenty-four year streak of Kansas wins in Manhattan. Or, maybe it was simply natural regression to the mean, after a mini-slump we were bound to break out somehow, and we showed some flashes of breaking out up in Ames.
We all know what Beasley is capable of, and all it took was an explosion by someone else on the Powercats' team, and the game could have ended very differently. Of course, not a single Powercat beside the Beasley stepped up and even reached double figures, thrusting all of the scoring onto one man. And no matter how talented that one man is, a should-be-shoo-in for the NPOY no matter how "good" Psycho T's team is, one man isn't enough to overcome five players in double figures for the opposition, led by Sherron Collins' official comeback party. Following our most recent loss, in Stillwater against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, I proposed SC spending a game or two on the bench and coming back to full health. And we will talk more about this a little later on in the evening, but apparently I was wrong. He exploded Saturday night in AFH, and continued the explosion the next two games against Texas Tech and Texas A&M.
As for the Sunflower Showdown, AFH was quite the rockin' place March 1st. We put on quite a good show for the Gameday crew, nearly everyone on our team performed up to preseason expectations (except Mario Chalmers), and we shut down the entire Kansas State team, save Michael Beasley. Quite the respectful victory, and a statement to the rest of the country that we were on our way back.
At one point the score was a reasonable 30-22 with Kansas holding the advantage. While the game didn't seem in doubt, we were playing well enough to win by a comfortable margin, the run that followed, lasting the remainder of the game (26:36 in game time) was foreseen by no one. We went on an almost incomprehensible 79-29 run, outscoring the Red Raiders by 50 points the rest of the game. That is almost two points every minute, meaning that we scored a basket more than the Techers almost every minute from there on out. And while the Techers certainly didn't play up to their full potential; missing open shots, playing lackidasical defense and turning the ball over needlessly, we didn't play half-bad either. After a fairly average output the first 15 minutes of the game, more reminiscent of the 4-3 skid than the 20-0 hot start, we exploded the final 25 minutes. And every single person on the Kansas Jayhawk bench with eligibility left, save Chase Buford, scored at least a point in Monday's demolition.
Jeremy Case was the last "known" senior to have a goose-egg in the scoring column, and his attempt to notch some points in his final game at Allen Field House quickly became the primary objective of the second half after we had pulled away to a more-than-comfortable margin. After a couple of misses, he happily obliged, drilling three straight threes on a handful of possessions, sending the 16,300 into their loudest frenzy of the night. Continuing with the senior theme, everyone left a happy camper. Russell led all scorers with 15 points (yes, we scored a grand total of 109 points and our leading scorer only had 15; this has to be some sort of record) going perfect from both the field (5-5) and the FT line (2-2). Sasha had a Sasha-like game of 10 points (on efficient 4-5 shooting) and 4 rebounds, and Darnell Jackson was a rebound away from a double-double (10 points, 9 rebounds). Rodrick Stewart drained two threes of his own, despite his career 3-point % of 18%, on his way to 6 points, three rebounds and two assists. Even two-year walk-on Brad Witherspoon, literally the last man off the bench and not even warranting a Senior speech (because he was only on the team two years?), got in on the action by draining two free throws. But the real story of the night was the difference between our red-hot shooting, specifically from the outside, and their ice-cold shooting, specifically from the outside.
The Techers attempted 23 threes, Kansas threw up 24. That is almost the same number. But the Red Raiders could only get five of their attempts to go through the basket, totalling 15 points. The Jayhawks got 14 of their attempts to count, for a total of 42 points. That is a whopping different of 27 points, a key difference between a respectable margin of victory and an astronomical difference garnering extra attention on SportsCenter. From anywhere on the court, the Techers shot an atrocious 29% compared to the Jayhawks' 60%, more than a 30% difference. That, my friends, is how you win by 58 points.
But, more importantly, the official statement was issued to the rest of college basketball, about the same time Mario Chalmers was throwing behind-the-head-with-time-running-out "alley-oops" that were being completed, that the Kansas Jayhawks have officially, once-and-for-all, recaptured the 20-0 form that forced the entire country to freak out and analysts to generally agree that Kansas was the team to beat in March. The fact that they have now abandoned the 'Hawks for more chic teams, such as North Carolina or the UCLA Bruins (who have been gift-wrapped two consecutive games by Pac 10 refs) or even the two teams in Tennessee means little to me. What I care about is that we are now becoming that same team that crowded our bandwagon way back in January, and that is all that matters. The size of your bandwagon has little-to-nothing to do with your chances at cutting down the nets in San Antonio.
While plenty of Jayhawks struggled yesterday, most notably every big not named Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush, we played well enough to beat a quality team by a sizable portion on the road. Darnell picked up plenty of rebounds in the second half, sure, but he scored a whopping 2 points in both halves combined. And Sasha Kaun fared even worse, only grabbing three rebounds to go along with his single point. Searching for a big to answer the call, HCBS even turned to my personal favorite big Cole Aldrich, whose 2 boards and three points only barely surpassed the embarrassing performance put up by Sasha. But there was DA, picking up the entire team in the first half (12 points on 6 for 7 shooting) and the entire front court in the second as the only consistent scorer in the paint. While some of it certainly has to be attributed to the terrific Aggies' defense, specifically in the post, our bigs will need to improve if we are to make a deep run into March.
But in a scenario where we would have struggled to break free just a couple weeks prior, we had a comfortable lead for much of the second half because of one man. Sherron Collins, absent for much of this season due to injuries and, even when healthy enough to play, not playing at full strength, showed up at 100% health yesterday in College Station. He became Billy Packer's favorite Kansas player of all time and inspired the Pacman to say something all Kansas fans have known for about 15 months, that Sherron Collins ist he key to our run in March. SC only picked up 13 points yesterday, Mario Chalmers (who had a fine game himself) scored 16 and Russell 10, but he was clearly the leader of the offense whenever he was on the floor. He was the floor leader, he ran the offense, he dictated the pace, he did everything we have asked of him and more recently. And he did it damn well, dishing out 7 assists along with his 13 points, often setting up his fellow guards who ended up outscoring him. He is the key to a March run, I know it and you know it.