The opening tip was a prelude of great plays to come. Forward Darrell Arthur won the tip, raced downcourt, and threw down an alley-hoop dunk pass from guard Mario Chalmers four seconds into the game. And then two minutes later, Julian Wright followed a missed three-pointer by Brandon Rush with a monster dunk.
After the Tigers soon scored five straight points to tie the game at 10-all at the 15:03 mark, KU turned up its intensity, attacked the zone, and ran away with the game. The Jayhawks outscored Tennessee State 30-9 the remainder of the half. Freshman guard Sherron Collins led the first-half charge with 14 points (5 of 5 from the field, including three three-pointers), and Wright added 10 points and six rebounds.
“The first half was terrific,” Self said. “I thought we played very well. The second half, I thought we got a little bored, unfortunately. I thought we played very well (in the first half). They missed shots, but also I thought our defense was good and we ran pretty good. Sasha was a spark for us off the bench. I thought our guards didn’t play early, missed guys wide open on the post, but over the course of the first half, Russell (Robinson) and Mario (Chalmers), they got a way of making things happen, and they certainly did so.”
Defensively, Robinson and Chalmers were a force on the perimeter and ran the break extremely well. Robinson finished the game with five assists and two steals, while Chalmers dished out two assists with three steals.
And then there was Kaun. The 6-11 center made his first appearance with 8:11 left in the first half and scored five points in less than three minutes. He finished the night with seven points in nine minutes, while playing great defense and anchoring the ‘Hawks inside on both ends of the court.
So what did the junior think about playing nine minutes in his season debut?
“It was good,” Kaun said. “It wasn’t to the point where I couldn’t walk. I thought it was just the right amount of time. It’s been awhile since I’ve been on the court. I don’t think I played great and I don’t think I played horrible. My play was average tonight.”“
Kansas certainly wasn’t average the first 20 minutes of the game. KU, quite simply, played its best half of the season. The Jayhawks played with energy. They played with purpose. And above all, they played with passion and fire. Kansas was tough defensively, holding the Tigers to just 22.2 percent field-goal shooting (31 percent for the game) the first half and forced 10 turnovers. Meanwhile, KU played unselfishly, got great ball movement and shot a blistering 64 percent (52. 5 percent overall).
The Jayhawks slipped somewhat after halftime and outscored Tennessee State by just four points the second half, although Self began pulling his key players with 6:52 remaining in the game.
While Arthur had 10 points and four rebounds in just 12 minutes (he was in foul trouble), and Rush posted his first double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds) of the season, KU’s big stars on the night were Collins with a game-high 19 points (4 of 6 three-pointers) and Wright, who was brilliant at times with 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and three steals. The 6-8 super sophomore showed why Self once called him a “poor man’s Magic Johnson” with some spellbinding passes, and even put on a Marcus Haynes (former Harlem Globetrotter) dribbling exhibition at the end of the first half, when he dribbled the ball between his legs before whipping a cross-court pass to Rodrick Stewart, who fed Rush for a three-pointer.
Overall, Wright was quite pleased with his team’s performance.
“I think that was the best effort (of the season),” he said. “We’ve had some great practices leading up to this game. We just want to have a hungry attitude and go out there and try to make simple plays and (get) a lot of effort points and protect the glass, and try to get the bigs in foul trouble. That was a point of emphasis”
Indeed, Tennessee State’s star forward Clarence Mathews (18 points and 6 rebounds) fouled out, while starting center Larry Turner had four fouls and played just 17 minutes. Kansas dominated the Tigers’ big men in the paint, outscoring them 42-18 and winning the rebound battle, 46-32.
Kaun’s return to action definitely gave KU the inside presence it has desperately needed.
"We got a huge spark by Sasha being in there,” Self said. “Yesterday's practice (Kaun’s first practice with the team since being injured before the exhibition season) was the best one we've had in a while because we had a guy in there who could finally beat the heck out of somebody. He was going to hit you and foul you, and that’s something we just haven’t had. He did a great job tonight with limited minutes. He looked fairly comfortable, a little winded. He will be sore, but they told us to expect that."
Self knew Monday in practice that Kaun was ready to play.
“The first timed he touched the ball, it was a pick and roll,” Self said. “They threw a lob to him just like last year and he dunked it, and we’re like, ‘Whoo.’ I think that kind of gave him some confidence.”
Self and the KU players were sure delighted to have Kaun back.
“We’ve been talking about leadership,” Self said. “That may be the guy. He certainly has changed the whole mindset of our locker room with the excitement level of him being out there. I think he may be the guy as much as anybody as being a good leader for this team.”
And that’s great news for Kansas as it heads into the Las Vegas Invitational this weekend with games against Ball State on Friday and No. 1 Florida on Saturday night. Wright, for one, is not about to look ahead to the Gators.
“Every game is a stepping stone in terms of getting better,” he said. “Coach has told us we got to get better. We’re going to be able to practice...so we’ll be able to focus on Ball State. We just want to limit a lot of mistakes and keep our intensity up. He (Self) said he doesn’t want to coach intensity. He wants us to have it in us.”
So with a renewed energy and focus on defense the last two games (KU held Towson to 41.1 percent field goal shooting in its 87-61 win Sunday night), Kansas has a little momentum after losing to Oral Roberts on Nov. 15. And with Self bringing out the red uniforms against Tennessee State for the first time since losing at Villanova on Jan. 22, 2005, Lady Luck may be on the Jayhawks’ side heading into Vegas. KU is 5-1 when wearing red uniforms under Self, who brought back the red unis after the Jayhawks had gone without them ever since Larry Brown’s ‘Hawks lost to Duke in the 1986 Final Four. The superstitious Brown swore he’d never have his team wear red uniforms again after that heartbreaking defeat.
Of course, Self knows it will take more than the red uniforms to turn KU into Sports Illustrated’s No. 1 preseason team. He wants maximum effort and intensity in every practice and game. For now, Self isn’t about to say his team completely got that message after the ORU loss.
“I think we’ll know 30 days from now,” Self said. “Anybody can turn it on for a game or two. Winning is obviously very important, but just doing things the right way, the right focus and approach. We certainly did better since Friday morning when we started working out again (after the ORU game two days earlier).”
And Self knows a healthy Kaun could do wonders for the team in the upcoming games and months ahead. With Kaun in the lineup, that good ole Jayhawk magic may be here to stay.
“We’re not quite as advanced, I don’t think as what we should be if we had all our pieces the whole time,” Self said. “We’re excited. We got Sasha back. He’s practiced one day. ...We’re not there yet, but I do think that will give us a big boost emotionally.”