No. 3 Jayhawks feel at home in Big 12 tourney

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This is their home.

The Sprint Center looks more like an NBA palace than a college basketball landmark. And the third-ranked Kansas Jayhawks’ campus is located 45 minutes to the west. But the Jayhawks consider this event and this arena their territory, and their March dominance in this setting suggests their Big 12 tournament reign will not end without a fight.

The latest display of their mastery came Thursday afternoon, when they routed ninth-seeded Texas A&M 83-66 in a quarterfinal behind 26 points from junior guard Elijah Johnson. Two more victories separate top-seeded Kansas from its third consecutive Big 12 tournament title and its sixth in the past seven years. They have never lost in the three previous Big 12 tourneys held in this building.

And the troubling news for the other three teams left in this tournament? They are comfortable here.

“I feel like the Big 12 is always a good conference, but we come here, and it’s kind of home for us,” said Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, who had 16 points. “We want to win it. We won the conference already, but we feel this is the time to get better and solidify winning the conference a little bit. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

They did Thursday. A victory over the overmatched Aggies was another example of why the Jayhawks have been so efficient at Allen Fieldhouse East. The outcome wasn’t a surprise. They had already proven themselves as a superior team by beating Texas A&M by 10 and eight points earlier in the season. Few expected them to have trouble before advancing to face fourth-seeded Baylor in a semifinal Friday.

But Thursday’s game began with reason to wonder if something was wrong. The Aggies stayed close as the Jayhawks stumbled through the first 12 minutes. Kansas coach Bill Self looked annoyed. At one point, he slapped his right palm on the floor and yelled, “You’ve got to be kidding me, Teahan!” after senior guard Conner Teahan fouled junior guard Elston Turner in the act of shooting. People wearing red and blue who made up most of the 18,972 in attendance knew things weren’t going as planned.

Yes, the Jayhawks looked sloppy, so much so that Self paced his sideline with pursed lips throughout the early minutes. But his team never trailed by more than five points after Texas A&M’s opening punch. The Jayhawks seemed poised to break open the score at any moment, because this is the Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center, and Kansas does not lose here.

Eventually, that’s what happened. Texas A&M’s five-point lead with 10:41 left in the first half became a 12-point Kansas advantage by halftime. Later, with about a minute left in an uneventful second half, the “Rock Chalk” chant echoed through this 4-year-old building to punctuate the triumph like so many before it.

“Being in Kansas City definitely helps out,” said Kansas junior center Jeff Withey, who finished with 11 points. “We know how important it is to win this tournament and to play tough every day. Our coaches definitely get the best out of us.”

Self credited his team’s effort but was hesitant to call it one of the Jayhawks’ best, saying, “Well, it was a good win. I don’t know if we played great.” No, Kansas didn’t play great, but style points don’t matter. Especially now.

As they did at Allen Fieldhouse throughout the winter, the Jayhawks found a way to elevate their effort when they had to. As a result, they kept alive their hopes of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Talent is the top reason why Kansas has placed itself in position to earn such a prize at its second home this weekend. But there is something to be said about playing within an environment that has produced so many positive memories. Earlier this season, there were moments when Self was asked, “How many points was the building worth tonight, Coach?” after a charged crowd seemingly pushed the Jayhawks to victory on their home court.

Over time, that same confidence has been felt among some within Kansas’ locker room here.

“We don’t let people come into the Fieldhouse and beat us. With the exception of Davidson (a six-point loss in Kansas City on Dec. 19), we don’t let anybody come into the Sprint Center and beat us,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the whole building rocking behind us. It’s contagious. Once you get here – the freshmen, they don’t expect us to lose. It would feel weird for them to see us lose. With them sitting on the bench and seeing it, they know that when it’s their turn, they should hang loose. The odds are on your side. You can’t lose. It’s almost impossible.”

By now, it feels that way. But Kansas must guard against overlooking Baylor, before the Jayhawks can envision clinching another Big 12 tournament championship game appearance. The Bears played their best game in recent memory by beating fifth-seeded Kansas State by eight points in Thursday’s most intriguing matchup. Baylor sophomore forward Perry Jones III, who scored a career-high 31 points, performed in a way that could cause Kansas problems if the Jayhawks start with another lethargic effort.

After Thursday, though, the Jayhawks have to like their chances to advance. After all, the Sprint Center feels like home. And home has been good to them.