KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The forecast for Saturday here inside Sprint Center calls for an unusual chance of unbridled beauty. Oregon, which can play the beautiful ball, will play Kansas, which can play the beautiful ball in spells gorgeous enough to be mind-altering. It looks like a case of ballet over bruises. It looks like there’s nobody to muddy it up.
It looks like something.
“They’re a fast team like we are,” Kansas freshman guard Josh Jackson said from his locker-room seat after the Thursday night blur had stilled. He concluded of the coming Midwest Regional final, “I think we have to play fast Saturday, and we have to make them play slow, which will be kind of interesting.”
At nearby theaters in Tulsa and Kansas City, with this one just 43 miles from the Jayhawks’ home in Lawrence, Kan., Kansas’ vivid, torrid show has spent three NCAA tournament games springing for 100, 90 and 98. It has shot 36-for-64, 34-for-64 and 34-for-62 for a total of 104-190, or 54.7 percent. From three-point yonder it has shot 11-for-25, 8-for-20 and 15-for-28, totaling 34-for-73, or 46.6 percent. It has blurred a two-point game with 12 minutes to go into a 20-point win over Michigan State, and a four-point game with 14:30 to go into a 32-point win over Purdue.
In fact, it has just taken a thoroughly good Big Ten regular-season champion in Purdue and reduced it to sudden, deluged rubble with a 98-66 thumping, after which Purdue Coach Matt Painter said anything can happen but, “If they play like they did in the second half, they can’t (be stopped).” It’s worth reliving the five-minute, 16-4 sequence between 14:29 and 9:12, because it had so much art stuffed in it that you might even say it’s why people bother watching basketball.
The trip from 58-54 to 74-58 zoomed by so fast that it seemed Kansas, a program upended this March Madness decade by Northern Iowa, VCU, Stanford and Wichita State, among others, simply does not have the time to be upended this time. It kicked off with a driving, difficult floater by Kansas guard Frank Mason III, the hardy, 5-foot-11 national player-of-the-year candidate. It had Lagerald Vick, the kinetic sophomore guard, plucking a steal from the Purdue half-court and emerging alone with the basket, to the thrill of the thickly Kansan crowd.
He treated it to a 360, and it made a great-big goose bump of the arena. “I’m just glad he made it,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said, “because that would have been a sore spot if he hadn’t.”
Continuing: Mason kicked one back to Josh Jackson at the top, and Jackson rained in a three-point shot that looked like it couldn’t possibly have missed. Bedlam was underway. At 11 minutes, Mason rained in a three-point shot from the left that looked like it couldn’t possibly have missed. Soon, he whipped a pass that seemed to hiss on its way to Vick, who dropped in a big arc of a three-point shot. Then, in the stuffy structure of the half-court, Mason lobbed one, Jackson threw it down, and Jackson later said, when asked if such stretches can get so blurry that it’s easy to forget the score, replied, “Sometimes.”
“You know, we’ve got pretty good players on our team,” he said, “and I think we’ve got a lot of guys who are able to get hot at any point in time, and I feel like when it happens for one player, it is contagious for the other guys on our team.” Mason’s stat line in particular — 26 points on only 11 shots (nine good), 4-for-5 from afar, 4-for-5 in free throws, seven rebounds, seven assists — was pretty much a primer on how to play the game.
Sometimes, with a team treating the eyes like this, there’s some killjoy waiting in the bracket to gum it up and bum it out. Purdue looked capable of that but wasn’t, even as the Big Ten Player of the Year, big Caleb Swanigan, got his 18 points and seven rebounds and four assists, if six turnovers. Oregon looks different, splashier, more fluid. It’s big enough to be physical enough, but talented enough to be picturesque and to make this thing look like a potential, proverbial feast. “I’m really fortunate,” said Coach Dana Altman, in his second straight final eight, “to have Jordan (Bell) for three years, and Tyler (Dorsey) for two and Dillon Brooks.” The guard Dorsey, in particular, has spent the tournament wreaking beauty, shooting 25-for-38 with 71 points.
Echoed Self, “We’re spoiled,” with the guards, senior Mason and junior Devonte’ Graham, who joined Mason with 26 points and in a chemistry that springs the whole art gallery. Then again, Jackson did say, “The game was, for sure, won on the defensive end, I’ll say that.” It was good of him to remind, but the show on the other end had been so dizzying that not even dreary words about defense could kill the high.