KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On April 2, Kansas senior Frank Mason III has a great chance to be named the Naismith Award winner, given to college basketball’s most outstanding player. The following day, it won’t be any surprise if his Jayhawks cement their status as the country’s best team, too.
Going up against fellow Naismith finalist Caleb Swanigan, Kansas’ star guard led a rout of fourth-seeded Purdue with an incredible all-around effort, finishing with 26 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, as the top-seeded Jayhawks again looked like the best team in the NCAA Tournament, during their 98-66 win in Thursday’s Midwest Region semifinal.
Kansas (31-4), which will make its seventh trip to the Elite Eight under coach Bill Self, has won its three tournament games by a combined 90 points, becoming the first team in 22 years (UConn) to score 90-plus points in its first three games of the tournament.
After enjoying a tremendous home-court advantage at the Sprint Center — roughly 45 minutes from the school’s Allen Fieldhouse — the Jayhawks again will play the role of de facto hosts against No. 3 Oregon in the Elite Eight, looking to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
“If they play like they did the second half, they can’t [be stopped],” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
Mason, the first player in school history to average more than 20 points and five assists in a season, was as brilliant as he has been all year, sparking the juggernaut offense in his typically efficient fashion. The senior hit 9-of-11 shots, including 4-of-5 3-pointers.
“He’s been great since he’s been here,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think the biggest difference is he’s looking to score more. He’s always been a guy, when we were struggling, we relied on him to go get it for us, and now I think he’s putting himself in a position to make more plays for himself and for others. He’s a total guard.”
The other half of the country’s best backcourt — Devonte Graham — also scored 26 points, making five 3-pointers.
“We’re spoiled,” Self said. “We have a situation on the perimeter you’ve always got, in my opinion, an All-American-type guard to be the leader and run your team. To have two guys out there playing like they’re playing, I think just gives everybody confidence, and it can help totally control the pace of the game.”
The final score made it easy to forget Purdue (27-8) was in control most of the first half, shooting better than 55 percent — hitting 6-of-13 3-pointers — to take an eight-point lead with less than seven minutes remaining. But from there, Kansas delighted the crowd with a series of explosive plays, closing on a 21-7 run to take a 47-40 halftime lead.
After Swanigan (18 points, seven rebounds, six turnovers) scored eight of the Boilermakers’ first 11 second-half points to cut the deficit to two, Kansas overwhelmed the Big Ten champs, forcing 16 turnovers that turned into 20 points. The Jayhawks then made it so Purdue could not question the true identity of the better team, hitting 15 3-pointers at a 54 percent clip, while holding the Boilermakers to 31 percent shooting in the second half.
“I thought it was one of the best games we played all year,” Self said.