Jayhawks' loose approach to NCAA Tournament opener paid off
Tulsa, Okla. — For weeks, Kansas coach Bill Self has referenced his hope that the Jayhawks would play loose, worry-free basketball this March, as they try to land the program in the Final Four for the first time in five seasons.
Once KU built a 20-point lead in the first half Friday night against UC-Davis, the players got to spend the remainder of a 100-62 rout living in the moment and enjoying the stage. This time of year can quickly become a stressful time for players and coaches, so opening the NCAA Tournament with laughs and chemistry-bolstering endorphins seemed ideal.
Senior center Landen Lucas definitely takes his job seriously, and doing so led to a 13-point, 11-rebound double-double for the KU veteran versus the Aggies (23-13). The 6-foot-10 big got to feel like a kid again, too, posting up on the blocks and showing off post moves that led to high-percentage buckets in the paint.
“Yeah, it was fun,” a smiling Lucas said in the locker room. “I don’t get a whole lot of chances to do that, so it was nice to do a couple. And then also it’s good moving forward because it gives me a little confidence to go to that if needed or if I see an opportunity for it.”
No one in a KU uniform enjoyed any play more than often subdued junior Svi Mykhailiuk, who coaxed a near-impossible 3-pointer through the net in the second half. With the shot clock clicking toward zero and his defender all over him, Mykhailiuk took a step-back, fading prayer from behind the arc that looked like it had no chance of dropping. But it did, the KU lead ballooned to 34 with more than 11 minutes to play and Svi cheesed harder than he seemed capable of as his buddy Devonte’ Graham ran toward him, screaming over the wild, highlight-level heave and make.
You would have sworn the Jayhawks (29-4) were just celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on the floor based on the looks on their faces. Mykhailiuk, who scored 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, said having a good time in the midst of executing should benefit Kansas.
“We were just playing ball,” the junior from Ukraine said, “and just enjoying the game.”
Lucas said Mykhailiuk’s crazy 3 and a late-game drain from senior walk-on Tyler Self highlighted a happy-go-lucky night.
“It’s always fun when Tyler gets in,” Lucas said. “But, you know, it’s fun. You try to have fun with these games, especially once you have a comfortable lead, because we know as soon as it’s over this time, you’ve got to get serious again to move forward to the next one.”
Indeed, a more than formidable Michigan State team awaits the Jayhawks in the Round of 32 on Sunday at the BOK Center.
After contributing six points and five rebounds in the victory, backup forward Carlton Bragg Jr. emphasized the importance of opening the team’s tournament run on a mellow note.
“Coach said in the locker room, just go out there and have fun,” Bragg shared of the pre-game message. “Just play hard. This is fun to play in March. So just go out there and have fun. Just let it go.”
An enjoyable Friday night could make a Sunday battle a little easier on the legs and minds of the Jayhawks, as they try to get back to Kansas City, Mo., for the Sweet 16