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Closer look: Kansas-Kentucky

Talented Jayhawks cap impressive two-game display

Posted: Sunday March 18, 2007 10:54PM; Updated: Monday March 19, 2007 1:58AM
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By Marty Burns, SI.com

CHICAGO -- Kansas coach Bill Self can breathe easier. Now it's the rest of the Sweet 16 field that should feel nervous.

Firing on nearly all cylinders for the second game in a row, top-seeded Kansas rolled past ninth-seed Kentucky 88-76 in Sunday's NCAA second-round matchup. The impressive victory puts the Jayhawks in next Thursday's regional semifinals - and takes some heat off Self after consecutive first-round exits in the past two tourneys.

"People make a big deal about losing in the first round the last two years, [and it] is a big deal in Kansas," Self said. "But all I [can] do is get the team prepared to play ... This weekend I thought they really competed and played well."

He would get no argument from Kentucky. The Wildcats simply had no answers for Kansas stars Julian Wright (21 points, eight rebounds), Brandon Rush (19 points), Mario Chalmers (16 points, eight assists) and the rest of the deep and athletic Jayhawks squad. Kansas led basically wire to wire, building a 36-30 halftime edge and running it up to as many as 20 late in the game.

The only real drama came early in the second half after Kentucky's Randolph Morris (22 points, eight rebounds) sank two foul shots to pull the 'Cats within 41-38. It lasted about nine seconds. That's when Morris picked up his third foul, and went to the bench.

Wright and Rush took over from there, fueling a 13-2 run that put Kansas ahead 54-40 and sent the rather sizable Jayhawks rooting section at the United Center into a frenzy. Wright, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, began the run with a feathery baseline jumper. Rush, a 6-6 sophomore, ended it with the third of his four straight three-pointers.

"Guys were just knocking down shots and having good spacing offensively," Wright said. "Defensively, coach just told us to try and work on rebounding and once we got the rebound we were able to run out and get lay-ups."

Kansas wound up shooting a blistering 56.6 percent for the game while limiting Kentucky to 41.4 percent.

If there was any flaw in Kansas' performance, it was on the backboards. Led by Morris' significant inside presence, Kentucky enjoyed a 32-30 edge on the glass, including 15-9 on the offensive end. But no Wildcat other than Bobby Perry (21 points) was really able to step up to provide the support Morris needed.

The complete victory for Kansas followed a 107-67 rout of 16th-seed Niagara in Friday's opener. With two impressive victories, the Jayhawks indeed appear to have put their previous tourney flameouts in the past.

"Right now we're just putting everything together," Kansas guard Sherron Collins said. "We don't want to go home."

PLAYER WHO IMPRESSED ME

On a team featuring so many threats, it's sometimes easy to overlook Rush. But the sophomore made sure that wasn't the case Sunday, killing the Wildcats' morale with a barrage of three-pointers. Rush, the younger brother of former NCAA stars Kareem and JaRon, got the Jayhawks off and rolling in the second half with a trey to put them up 39-30. He then hit two biggies --- one from each side of the court -- during that key second-half run. For the game, he hit six-of-seven from downtown. "He's an excellent shooter," said Perry, who nailed five-of-eight three-pointers himself en route to 21 points. "If you don't have a hand right there on him ... he needs very little room." Rush, by the way, considered leaving Kansas for the NBA last year after his freshman season but changed his mind. The Jayhawks are glad he did.

COURTSIDE CONFIDENTIAL

Michael Jordan again was in the house, seated in a skybox. During a timeout in the second half, the overhead board featured an NCAA quiz with Jordan as the correct answer. A large portion of the crowd stood and cheered while turning toward Jordan, who waved back. ... Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, who played for Kansas' '03 NCAA runner-up team, also attended the game and spoke to the team afterward. "He said he's not much of a motivational speaker," Wright said. "He just told us to go get it, and nothing is promised. You have to earn it." ... Kentucky's Sheray Thomas had one of those "Doh!" moments in the second half when he threw a bad pass in the backcourt. "No!" he said audibly as the ball left his fingers. Chalmers easily picked it off and took it in for a layup. ... Sunday's game featured the winningest program of all time in Kentucky vs. the third-winningest in Kansas. ... Kentucky is 19-6 all-time but Kansas has now won the last three meetings.

THE BIG PICTURE

The Jayhawks have won 13 straight overall and seem to be putting it all together. After finally getting past the first two rounds, they also might feel a little less pressure going into the next game at least. Southern Illinois is tough defensively, but Kansas might have too much firepower with their exceptional guards and future NBAer Wright roaming in the front court. If the Salukis can get up into the Kansas players and slow down the tempo, they have a chance. But the Jayhawks certainly looked like a Final Four team during their weekend in the Windy City. "It's not just one or two of their players," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "They have so many weapons and ways to beat you."

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