During its perfect start, easy wins have become the norm for Kansas. The Jayhawks’ most recent contest proved that they’re also capable of winning close games when not at their best.
The second-ranked Jayhawks (18-0, 3-0 Big 12) hope to remain one of the nation’s two unbeaten Division I teams when they host Iowa State (12-6, 2-1) on Wednesday night.
Kansas had hardly been tested in winning its first 17 games, leading the nation in margin of victory (25.5) and taking each of its last six contests by at least 21 points.
The Jayhawks, though, faced their toughest challenge in a month at rival Missouri on Saturday. They shot a season-low 40 percent (22-for-55) from the field, but compensated by hitting a season-best 28 free throws in 45 attempts to hold off the pesky Tigers 76-70.
Brandon Rush was 2-for-14 from the floor but made three free throws in the final 64 seconds, during which the Jayhawks went 8-for-12 from the line.
“I made a big-time effort to get to the line, or stay aggressive and get easy baskets somewhere,” Rush said. “Yeah, I was getting frustrated, but I was trying not to pay too much attention to it.”
The Jayhawks’ 18-0 record is the fifth-best start in school history, and the best since the 1996-97 team opened a school-record 22-0.
Mario Chalmers scored 18 points and Darnell Jackson had 13 and nine rebounds for the Jayhawks, who improved to 32-1 in their last 33 games despite making their final field goal with 7:30 remaining.
“I’m certainly not going to complain about the number we shot on the road,” coach Bill Self said. “We made just enough to win the game, but we made it hard on ourselves down the stretch by not converting, and we’ve got to do better.”
The tight victory helped Kansas move up one spot in the rankings after former No. 1 North Carolina lost for the first time this season. Only new No. 1 Memphis also remains undefeated.
Kansas freshman center Cole Aldrich, though, wasn’t satisfied with being No. 2.
“It’s nice that were moving up, but we wish we were No. 1,” he said. “We will show everyone who the real No. 1 is at the end of the season. Yeah, I think we are (the best team in the country). We’ve had some tough wins, which really helped us build our character.”
Kansas’ balanced offense was on display again Saturday as four players scored in double figures.
Sophomore forward Darrell Arthur averages a team-best 13.2 points per game, followed by Chalmers (12.5), Jackson (12.3) and Rush (11.8).
Iowa State has won five of six and nine of its last 11 games, but even coach Greg McDermott knows his team faces a very difficult assignment Wednesday.
“They’re as talented a team as there is in the country,” he said. “For someone to beat them, they’re going to have to play a perfect game, especially in Allen Fieldhouse, and hope Kansas is not at the top of their game.”
The Cyclones overcame a 10-point deficit for their eighth straight home win Saturday, 73-66 over Oklahoma State. Sophomore guard Wesley Johnson scored a career-high 24 points for Iowa State, which has lost three of four road games this season.
The Cyclones have dropped six straight against ranked teams - five coming under McDermott.
Johnson leads the team in scoring (13.9) and averaged 22.0 in his last two games. However, he was limited to six points on 2-of-11 shooting the last time Iowa State faced Kansas, an 89-52 loss on Feb. 24.
Kansas has won four straight and 11 of its last 13 meetings with Iowa State. The Cyclones have one victory in their last six visits to Allen Fieldhouse, 63-61 in overtime on Feb. 19, 2005.