Sacramento — The first half of 14th-ranked Kansas' 75-54 victory over Stanford at Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, provided KU coach Bill Self one of those rare moments where he actually could be pleased with both his team's offense and defense.
After grinding out the first eight or so minutes of their final nonconference game before the start of Big 12 play next week, the Jayhawks (10-2) pulled away with an 18-2 run that turned an 11-10 deficit into a 28-13 lead and, for all intents and purposes, could have been the moment the game was stopped and the fans were sent home.
View a gallery of images from Thursday night's game between the Jayhawks and Cardinal in Sacramento, California.
Playing in front of an energetic, pro-KU crowd, the Jayhawks shot 62.5 percent in the first half — 46.2 percent from 3-point range — and rocked and roared their way to a 47-29 halftime lead on the strength of good team basketball.
The ball moved easily and effortlessly up and down the floor and the Jayhawks all seemed to be on the same page as they steamrolled the Cardinal into submission.
“Unbelievable how well we moved the ball in the first half against the zone," Self said. "When you look back a couple of games and we didn't move the ball very well at all against a couple of zones.”
No one player personified the Jayhawks' attacking mentality better than KU big man Udoka Azubuike, who turned in his third straight impressive outing after being challenged by Self heading into the Nebraska victory last weekend, this one to the tune of 24 points and seven rebounds on 12-of-15 shooting in just 26 minutes.
Azubuike scored KU's first 10 points of the game — all coming in the paint — and proved to be a major challenge for the Cardinal from start to finish.
Thursday's exclamation point came right where Kansas got this one started, with a monster slam by Azubuike, this one all over Stanford junior Reid Travis, who was helpless to stop the momentum and movement of the KU big man who was, somehow, left all alone in the paint and went up without a challenge for the big finish of a missed floater by Svi Mykhailiuk. The rim rocker put Kansas up 64-47 with just over five minutes to play and ended any slim hopes Stanford may have had of a late comeback.
“I don't get on to him for scoring, I get onto him for not rebounding the ball,” Self said of his sophomore center. “And I still don't think he does very well for his size. But he played pretty athletic tonight, offensively, and he got a block or two, defensively. I thought he played really well.”
Asked if Azubuike's solid three-game stretch was an indication that the powerful center, who recorded nine dunks during Thursday's victory — and is now up to 51 for the season — was starting to make moves toward permanently becoming the aggressive force inside that the Jayhawks need him to be, Self tilted his head and stopped short of praising the ever-improving post player too much.
“Clicking may be too strong,” Self said. “But he's gone 26 (points) and then he had a good game and then 24. So, yeah, he's getting (there) and I think zero free throws made.”
Azubuike's made one free throw earlier this week against Omaha, but recorded zero points from the line in his 50-point combined outburst in road victories over Nebraska and Stanford.
“He doesn't shoot many but he hasn't made a free throw and (scored) 50 points,” Self marveled. “You're not going to see that very often, especially with big guys. He's got to get to the point where he can get to the line and make a free throw too.”
One guy who had no trouble doing that in the last meeting between these two teams was Stanford's Travis, who set Allen Fieldhouse opponent records with 19 makes and 22 attempts from the free throw line in last year's matchup.
Thursday night, Travis went to the line just three times — making one of them — and was limited to 12 points and four rebounds in 39 minutes, a far cry from the 29 and nine he hit KU with last season.
A big reason for that was the defense the Jayhawks chose to use against him. Rather than letting Azubuike body up on him and challenge him with size, the Jayhawks threw smaller, quicker players at Travis, over and over and over, and guys like Svi Mykhailiuk, Sam Cunliffe and Marcus Garrett, used their lateral movement and good anticipation to thwart any attempts Travis made toward the basket in the paint during the first half.
After scoring on Stanford's first offensive possession, Travis did not record another point or field goal until the 1:28 mark of the first half. And by that time, the game was well on its way to being decided.
“We knew they like to post Reid a lot,” KU point guard Devonte' Graham said of the Stanford big man. “So we were trying to do stuff like not let the ball go to the corner and give them easy angles. I think our defense was pretty good. We ain't really got that many big people except for Dok. We were switching four and trying to front him and whenever he caught the ball we were coming to trap him. But we did a good job of not letting him get going early.”
Added Self: “I thought we did a great job defensively on him.”
KU's second half — 41 percent shooting, 0-of-5 from 3-point range, a 28-25 edge on the scoreboard — left more than a little to be desired, but the Jayhawks showed that, when they play together and pay attention to the scouting report, they are capable of putting some serious distance between themselves and good opponents.
Stanford, led by former Jayhawk Jerod Haase, now in his second season leading the Cardinal, was missing some key players and is off to a 6-7 start, but they still had enough athletes and talent to give Kansas a game if the Jayhawks were not at their best.
The Jayhawks were in the first half and that was all she wrote.
“I don't think that we played very well offensively at all (in the second half) but they didn't score either,” Self said. “I think they shot it poorly and they didn't get a lot of easy baskets. I mean, the game wasn't going our way (early in the second half). Dok's in foul trouble (with three at the 18:21 mark), they're already in the bonus (at 11:49), so you would think that would be a time (they might make a run), but I don't think it got closer than 15. Even though we didn't play well, we didn't allow them to play well. That was probably the key.”