If there was any lingering doubt about Kansas’ place as the Big 12’s dominant team in 2013, it has evaporated. Kansas is still master of its own domain — the state of Kansas, the town of Kansas City and the Big 12 Conference.
The seventh-ranked Jayhawks, losers of their final regular-season game to Baylor and who muddled through a losing streak in early February, are playing their best basketball of the season when it matters most: March.
Kansas (29-5) convincingly dismissed Kansas State 70-54 Saturday evening to claim its ninth Big 12 men’s basketball tournament title. A record crowd of 19,256 — mostly loyal KU and KSU fans — packed the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City and saw the Jayhawks leave no doubt about their league supremacy. Both teams shared the regular-season title after finishing 14-4 in league play, but KU won all three meetings with K-State.
The Jayhawks look poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and thoroughly have changed the aura that surrounded them during a three-game losing streak in February, which included a horrid shooting performance and jaw-dropping loss at TCU, which was winless in league play at the time.
Shooting certainly wasn’t a problem this week for the Jayhawks. They set a Big 12 tournament record with a 55.6 field goal percentage (90 of 162) for the tournament. Add to that an increased defensive intensity that helped stifle Kansas State, which shot a season-low 22 percent in the first half, as Kansas took a 24-16 halftime lead.
KU center Jeff Withey led the Jayhawks with 17 points, nine rebounds and had one of KU’s six blocks en route to being named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Teammate Perry Ellis came off the bench to give KU an offensive boost for the second consecutive night. The freshman scored 10 of his 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the second half and added six rebounds, two assists and a block.
Ellis scored a career-high 23 points Friday in KU’s semifinal win. He joined Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez on the all-tournament team.
“The last four games — I think he scored 55 points the last four games, if I’m not mistaken,” KU coach Bill Self said. “So he’s really coming into his own. He’s going to be really good. But he just looks like a different guy from a confidence standpoint right now.”
The 11th-ranked Wildcats (27-7), who are a sure bet to earn an at-large bid when the NCAA tournament bracket is announced at 5 p.m. Sunday, tried to slow down the pace of the game from the start, but it may have put their own shooters to sleep.
McGruder, who led with 18 points, was the only KSU player dealing a hot shooting hand. Rodriguez and McGruder combined to make 5 of 11 from 3-point range, but the rest of the Wildcats managed only 1 of 13 as KU pulled away in the second half with a 12-3 run to take a 40-28 lead with 13:25 remaining.
Each time KSU tried to inch back into the game, the Jayhawks answered. Cedar Hill graduate Thomas Gipson muscled in a layup to cut KU’s lead to 28-25 early in the second half, but Kevin Young nailed a mid-range jumper seconds later at the other end.
McGruder’s 3 cut the deficit to 33-28 a few minutes later, but Naadir Tharpe responded at the other end with a 3 for KU.
Later, with the Wildcats desperately trying to shoot their way back in the game with less than seven minutes to go, Ellis nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key to answer McGruder’s 3-pointer on the previous possession to push KU’s lead back up to 14. It was only Ellis’ second 3-pointer of the season and a sign that he and the Jayhawks have come alive.
“This is the perfect time; March is the perfect time to start peaking,” Withey said. “You don’t want to peak too soon because people will get used to it, and you won’t ever get that far. Perry is stepping up at the right moment, and that will help us go really far in the tournament.”