CHICAGO – The final strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" from the Wildcat Marching Band were fading Sunday, taking on the tenor of a dirge, begging a question: Shouldn't they have started playing this song earlier in the night?
The box score says Kansas beat Kentucky 88-76, but the 12-point margin failed to capture the distance between the two teams and the ease with which the Jayhawks won. Never was there a moment when it felt that Kentucky controlled anything, even in a first half that ended with the Jayhawks up six, even when two Randolph Morris free throws cut the lead to 41-38 early in the second half. A tidy 13-2 run, topped off by a three-pointer by sophomore Brandon Rush, quelled any notion of a Kansas collapse and started a couple of Jayhawks fans chanting for the most famous of Kentucky's fans.
Ashley Judd never did show. Maybe she couldn't bear to watch, which was understandable. There was no Bucknell or Bradley to stop the Jayhawks this year, no team in the United Center this weekend that would have even scared them. Four days into this tournament, the higher-seeded teams are the ones left standing, including all four No. 1 seeds, but none of them is cruising like Kansas.
Ohio State needed a last-second three-pointer to force overtime against Xavier. Purdue led Florida with less than seven minutes to go, and North Carolina struggled to finish off Michigan State. Yet the Jayhawks were breathtaking in both their victories here, as if the embarrassment of losing in the first round each of the last two years made it all the more important for them to crush all comers.
"I think so," said sophomore forward Julian Wright, who grabbed eight rebounds and put up a team-high 21 points Sunday. "We don't want to think about it too much where it makes us nervous. Everything's a learning experience. We're still kind of young, but we didn't want to use that as an excuse. We felt like, 'Why wait?' "
Wright is right about Kansas' youth. This is still a team that doesn't start a senior, but it does have arguably the country's best sophomore class, a sure sign that coach Bill Self's reputation as a master recruiter is well earned. Wright, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush combined to shoot 19-for-29 and score 56 points Sunday, and it will take the best effort from a fine defensive team – fourth-seeded Southern Illinois, up next for KU on Thursday in San Jose – to have any shot of stopping them.
"We just have a different mindset from what we had last year," said Rush, who went 6 of 7 from 3-point range Sunday, scoring 19 points. "By staying focused, we're not letting distractions get to us."
After the game, according to some players, Self tried hard to find something to complain about, claiming his team must box out better. After all, Kentucky did have 32 rebounds while Kansas had only 30. "We didn't rebound at all this weekend," Self said, overlooking the obvious: When a team shoots 54 percent in one game – as Kansas did in its 107-67 rout over Niagara on Friday – and 57 percent in the next, what's there to rebound?
"From an offensive standpoint, this is probably as good as we've looked in the half court," Self acknowledged. "We scored points in transition, but a majority of our good possessions came from us scoring in the half court."
If there's a parallel to be drawn here, it seems fair to compare these Jayhawks to another recent group too talented and precocious to know their inexperience was supposed to be a detriment: last year's Florida Gators. Kansas is rolling the way that team was, and it seems natural to glance ahead two weeks and envision an Atlanta matchup in the national semifinals between the defending champions and the team that might be best equipped to beat them.
"We don't think about it," Chalmers said. "We ain't there yet."
No, but after Sunday, it seems safe to say they will be. That's how dominant the Jayhawks have been. That's how inevitable a berth in the Final Four now appears.
"How many three-pointers did you have today," junior guard Jeremy Case, who didn't see any action Sunday until the game's final minute, asked Rush in the locker room. "Five?"
"Six," Rush said.
"Six?" Case asked. "If I'd have played 20 more minutes, I'd have had nine."
He laughed. And you believed him.
- the Jayhawks
- Brandon Rush