KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Caleb Swanigan, who is not prone to loquaciousness, was asked on Thursday if he was having any fun at all as Purdue approached the Sweet 16.
“I came here to win,” Purdue’s brawny power forward declared. “I didn’t come for the fun part.”
Presumably, the Big Ten Player of the Year left empty-handed on both accounts. Top-seeded Kansas weathered an early flurry of offense and then ramped up its defense, especially in the second half, to throttle the Boilermakers 98–66 and head to the Elite Eight.
Three thoughts on the nightcap at the Sprint Center:
1. Kansas’ killer instinct has kicked in
Entering the NCAA tournament, the Jayhawks had played in 11 games decided by five points or less. In the search for signs of weakness in a No. 1 seed, the penchant to allow teams to stick around was considered a possible fatal flaw. But Kansas appears to have buried that habit. Its second-round meeting with Michigan State was a one-point game with 12 minutes remaining … and the Jayhawks won by 20. Purdue rallied to get within two with 16 and a half minutes remaining on Thursday … and then Kansas decided to close.
"I thought it was one of the best games we played all year," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
An 11–0 run created a 15-point lead and the Jayhawks cruised into the winner’s circle from there. It was equal parts offense (Kansas hit eight of its first 11 shots in the second half) and defense (it forced four Purdue turnovers on the seven possessions after the Boilermakers made their push). This is not an auspicious sign for those in the Jayhawks’ path. Yes, they knew how to win close games—Kansas was 8–3 in the aforementioned 11 tight contests. But allowing teams to hang around in a single-elimination tournament is a risky proposition. The Jayhawks seem to have realized that, and their solution is to ensure the result isn’t close at all.
2. Frank Mason outshined Swanigan in an imaginary Player of the Year duel.
Naturally, Kansas’ 5’ 11” point guard was never going to duel Purdue’s 6’ 9” four-man directly. But there was no mistaking who got the better of the night in every sense. Swanigan struggled in the first half, taking just two shots and collecting two rebounds while committing four turnovers. Purdue made a concerted effort to play through its Player of the Year to start the second half, and it got decent results; Swanigan’s second three-pointer of the half was the shot that brought his team to that two-point deficit and brought it some hope. His final line of 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, to go with seven rebounds, looks fine enough. But Swanigan impacted this game in essentially one spurt, and his trash-talking was drawing laughs by the end: Swanigan fouled Devonte’ Graham on a three-pointer with a little more than four minutes to play, and with his team down 25, he yakked at Kansas forward Josh Jackson while the Jayhawks’ Landen Lucas looked on and smiled.
Meanwhile, as usual, Mason had his fingerprints all over everything. He scored 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting while adding seven rebounds and seven assists and committing just two turnovers. After Purdue cut the Kansas lead to two, Mason assisted on a Graham three-pointer and then scored two straight buckets to incite the Jayhawks’ killer surge.
"He's looking to score more," Self said of Mason. "He's always been a guy when we were struggling we relied on him to go get it for us, and now I think he's putting himself in a position to make more plays for himself and others. He's a total guard. It was two complete games by both guards."
Graham added 26 points of his own, and it is no small matter that Kansas has two veteran guards playing at a high level at this stage. That is pretty much the recipe lately for a national championship run.
Mason and Swanigan deserve their spots in the national Player of the Year conversation. One of them got the better of the other, by a large margin, on Thursday.
3. Josh Jackson, glue guy.
It’s quite the luxury when the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2016 is a utility player in a Sweet 16 game. But that was Jackson’s role on Thursday, and his hustle and quick hands helped keep Kansas in the mix early while the Boilermakers were sizzling. Jackson had quick hands on the defensive end, poked a couple would-be defensive rebounds away from Purdue players and even drew the assignment of guarding Swanigan at times. He finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds, four steals and a block. His athleticism and shot-making can be staggering at times. But his willingness to do the small things Thursday was equally impressive.