DES MOINES, Iowa — There are times when Kansas plays so well that it looks as if it invented the game of basketball, which is essentially true. The Jayhawks’ legacy is so strong that it traces to their first coach, James Naismith, who did design the sport.
That meant nothing Saturday night, of course, except to say that their game against Connecticut did not involve any of the neophytes and long shots that have made this year’s NCAA Tournament so interesting. This was a matchup between two accomplished heavyweights. Kansas packed a wallop, building a big early lead and advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 73-61 victory.
“We were really, really, really good in the first half,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, thinking of 16-0 and 19-0 runs.
Given the collective backgrounds of these two multiple title-winners, it was only fitting that the Jayhawks used methods that have worked since the peach basket days: aggressive defense and excellent shooting.
Kansas (32-4) took UConn (25-11) out of its rhythm by using the Huskies’ tactic of pressure defense against them and was up 20 at halftime. Then the Jayhawks held off a rally that cut the lead to nine points. They did that emphatically with a rim-shaking one-handed alley-oop dunk by Wayne Selden Jr., building the margin to 15 with 1:38 left.
Selden, who grew up next door to UConn’s Jalen Adams, had 22 points. Perry Ellis added 21 as the Jayhawks justified their status as the No. 1 overall seed.
“Being aggressive, making it happen,” Selden said of his team’s approach. “We have good guards and they penetrated, and we penetrated off them.”
Cinderella was nowhere in sight at this site this weekend. As much as upsets and upstarts always energize the NCAA Tournament, the games here showed that tradition revolves around traditional powers, too.
What made the UConn-Kansas matchup interesting was that it proved icons can come in different sizes and vintage. Kansas traces its roots back to the very origins of the sport. UConn is a modern powerhouse that has won four titles since 1999.
Having made comebacks in their conference tournament and against Colorado in the first round, UConn appeared to be gaining the momentum it had shown in its recent Final Four surges. Before Saturday night, Kevin Ollie never had coached an NCAA Tournament loss (7-0).
“Defense, rebounding, we were doing everything. We knocked down shots, too,” said Ellis, a throwback in his own right in that he is playing a fourth college season. He and Selden totaled 25 points in the first half, one more than UConn’s total.
He added, “We’re excited. This is a great feeling, knowing all our hard work is paying off. It’s a great feeling knowing that you are moving on.”
For UConn, the feeling was just the opposite. “It was tough. We kind of dug ourselves in a hole in the first half, and they’re a good team, so it was tough to get out of that hole,” said Sterling Gibbs, a graduate transfer from Seton Hall who had 20 points.
When he later was asked to reflect on his one year with the Huskies, he just bowed his head. Tears prevented him from giving an answer, and Ollie put his hand on his back to console him.
That is part of the tradition, too, which both of these teams know so well. The bottom line is that Kansas is not living in the past — not even the recent past.
“We have to keep the mindset we had today. We can’t settle for what we did today,” guard Frank Mason III said. “We can’t be satisfied with what we accomplished today. We just have to play every possession like it’s our last.”