In what easily rated as the most-anticipated match-up of this young college
hoops season, fourth-ranked Michigan State and fifth-ranked Kansas didn't
disappoint. Everybody who played--and perhaps a few who were merely close to the physical action--needed ice, ibuprofen and a good night's sleep.
But in the end, it was Kansas, no doubt, sleeping well and Michigan State
tossing and turning after the Jayhawks jolted the Spartans, 81-74, before a
raucous crowd of 16,300 that included 19 NBA scouts and former standout Nick Collison, whose jersey was retired at halftime.
It was a big-time game, a big-time atmosphere, and the Jayhawks' big-time win earned big-time kudos from first-year KU coach Bill Self.
"I thought we played tough," Self said. "We didn't always play well but we played hard and tough and had a tough mindset. We can improve in a lot of areas.
"One thing that's different about Allen is you can't coach during a game.
Guys that are great game coaches at Allen? That's a bunch of baloney because
unless you've got sign language, nobody can ever hear you.
"So I thought that there are so many things that we can do and situations that we haven't even began to go over, but the guys really competed hard. It came down to loose balls and things like that. We created enough havoc to get some baskets in transition and that was the difference."
No kidding. Kansas swiped 15 steals on a night when the visitors from East Lansing turned the ball over 24 times. Those thefts led to a 34-12 KU advantage in points off turnovers and an 18-10 upper hand in fast-break points.
By just under the 12-minute mark of the second half, the Jayhawks led 63-46 and Wayne Simien already had established a career-high for points. On a night when he played 38 minutes, Simien was far from finished, though, and KU needed every one of Big Dub's 28 points, eight rebounds and extraordinary leadership to stave off a valiant MSU rally.
"He was great," Self said. "He was as good as any player in America tonight. And I haven't seen them all, obviously, but to score 28 on 12 shots and play 38 minutes? Wayne was awesome."
Kansas point guard Aaron Miles echoed his coach's sentiments.
"Wayne was a beast," Miles said. "He just played well. He played within himself, let the game come to him. He made shots, got rebounds, putbacks. He just did everything he could, especially in the first half when Keith was out, he really carried us. That's the type of player he is."
Complementing Simien's awesome night were fellow juniors Miles and Keith Langford. Miles, who like Simien played an astounding 38 minutes, finished with 17 points, six assists and seven steals. His only negative, really, was six turnovers, and Self took the blame for some of those.
"Aaron Miles was really good," Self said. "He played too many minutes, and
that's my fault, and he got careless and turned it over a couple of times, but
if you take away his turnovers his line is outstanding for a point guard."
Exhaustion wasn't a problem for Langford, who sat 17 minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. The Fort Worth slasher was unstoppable in the second half, scoring all of his 13 points in the final 20 minutes.
"We rolled the dice," Self said of the decision to sit Langford after his early whistles. "We could have played him more but we were playing well enough that I thought don't risk getting his third. Then we rolled the dice a little bit to start the second half which I'm really glad we did when he picked up his third to start the second half. The coaches said, 'Let him play.' And he played . And that was a huge key."
Behind Simien's 18 first-half points, the Jayhawks led by as many as nine
points and took a 38-31 lead into the locker room. In the opening 20 minutes,
Kansas blocked six MSU shots, forced 14 Spartan turnovers--including eight steals--and matched coach Tom Izzo's squad in every way intensity-wise, scrambling madly for every loose ball, errant shot and ricocheting rebound.
It was Simien, certainly, who set KU's rugged tone. The junior from Leavenworth made five of seven field goal attempts, including a three, hit all seven of his free throws, had two blocks and a steal in 19 minutes.
As previously noted, Langford picked up two quick fouls and led cheers from
the bench for the final 17 minutes of the first half. First off the bench to
fill in for the junior standout? Freshman J.R. Giddens, who electrified the sold out crowd with back-to-back, freakifying dunks, both set up by Giddens'
hustling defensive play.
"J.R.'s played really well of late," Self said. "He's starting to pick things
up. I don't know if you've noticed but he's kind of an emotional guy, and
something good happens early and he makes a couple of spectacular plays. He'll get in the flow and really respond. The thing about J.R. is he played great and he didn't make threes and that's something he does really well."
Now the Jayhawks, 2-0, can enjoy their Thanksgiving break. And so can the coaching staff.
"I think that they played the way I want them to play," Self said. "I think if you play a certain way you can think you're playing bad and you look up and your up 23-19. And I think that's the type of mentality we had because our first-shot defense was good other than transition, and loose balls, and we ran bad offense but we still got easy baskets off transition and our defense. And I think that's what this team has to do."
What does Self think the victory--even this early in the season--means?
"This is what I hope it does: I hope that it gives us credibility with our
players that what we do works, which I know it will," Self said. "Nobody's
skeptical but I think everybody wants to see, 'Hey, does it work?' We won a muddy game tonight. And there's going to be other times when games aren't free-flowing and all that, and we've got to draw confidence from winning those type of games because we haven't shot the ball consistently yet. And if you don't shoot it consistently sometimes you don't play as fast offensively. But I think the guys will draw confidence knowing that what we enforce, works. And I think that's big step toward getting guys to buy in even moreso than they already have….
"That's probably as much fun as I've had. Even during the game, we're screwing the game up or doing something and guys look over there and I'm smiling or whatever. Doesn't do any good to yell at them because they can't hear you. It was a fun night. Best atmosphere I've ever been a part of."
The Jayhawks will return to action next Monday at TCU. Tipoff from Fort Worth is 10 p.m.--that's not a typo, 10 p.m.