TULSA, Okla. — Somewhere in the zig-zagging tunnel deep inside the heart of BOK Center, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self and UC Davis forward Chima Moneke crossed paths.
Moneke, the No. 16-seeded Aggies’ second-leading scorer, grabbed Self’s arm. He had a message to deliver.
“Go win it all, Coach,” Moneke said.
Self, looking slightly surprised by the comment, responded to the classy gesture in kind.
“Thank you, buddy,” Self said. “Good game.”
Thing is, the proceeding 40 minutes of action was anything but.
The No. 1-seeded Jayhawks took out over a week of frustration on the Aggies, steamrolling their way to victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 100-62, on Friday night.
KU, playing with a chip on its shoulder after a quarterfinal elimination in the Big 12 Tournament, ran away to victory thanks in part to a big effort from freshman guard Josh Jackson, who one may say was playing with a family-sized Tostitos bag in tow.
Jackson made the most of his return to the court from the one-game suspension he served in that quarterfinal tilt, scoring 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting and grabbing six rebounds in the victory.
Jackson soared and slammed, flashing the freakish athleticism and raw abilities that make him a surefire lottery pick in a future NBA Draft, likely this summer.
For Jackson — and the Jayhawks, for that matter — the return to the court appeared a cathartic experience.
“When I step out there on the court, I’m really not thinking about anything else but basketball, something I’ve been doing for most of my life,” Jackson said. “It’s just a game, and I’m going to just play it.”
Frank Mason led KU with 22 points and eight assists, while Devonte’ Graham (16 points), Svi Mykhailiuk (16) and Landen Lucas (13 points, 11 rebounds) rounded out the Jayhawks’ double-digit scorers in the therapeutic romp.
Given the off-court drama that has surrounded him of late, one might expect Jackson to have played with more of an edge Friday night. And while he certainly flexed his talents in his March Madness debut, the former top-ranked prospect said playing angry was not part of the performance.
“I was just thinking, ‘Play basketball,’ ” Jackson said. “As a team, we just had a talk. We wanted to come out and play Kansas basketball tonight, and I think that’s what we did.”
Rust appeared a factor early on for KU, which was playing only its third game in an 18-day stretch. But the Jayhawks (29-4) blew a hole in the contest in the final eight minutes of the first half, turning a 21-all tie with 7:51 left in the period into a 43-23 advantage less than six minutes later and overwhelming the underdog Aggies (23-13) with a frenetic 22-2 run.
Jackson was pivotal in the rally, especially early on. He got the run started with a next-level layup and pushed it to a 10-0 stretch with a smooth left-handed layup a minute later, a play he called his personal highlight from the evening.
“Normally don’t use my left hand as much,” Jackson said, “so I was just a little impressed with myself.”
Other highlights in the run included an alley-oop feed from Graham to Mason for an athletic breakaway layup, a Lagerald Vick dunk that was followed by a short series of high steps in front of the UC Davis bench, and a Lucas hook shot that capped the run.
The Aggies, meanwhile, went six-plus minutes without a field goal in the period, which saw them enter the break trailing 50-28. Jackson, Mason and Graham all had 11 points by the half, and KU built upon its 13-rebound advantage at the break for a 45-27 edge on the boards by the final buzzer.
“That was about as solid as we’ve played in a while,” Self said of the first-half run, which became 29-4 before Lansing product Siler Schneider (10 points) hit a trio of free throws to make the halftime margin 22.
KU kept its foot on the gas in the second half. Jackson threw down a two-handed flush dunk on the team’s first possession, and the Jayhawks kept up from there, with Mason draining back-to-back 3-pointers to make it a 26-point advantage.
When Vick missed a 3-pointer with 14:30 to play, Jackson soared in to finish with a crisp dunk. And, for good measure, Jackson added another highlight on the next possession, converting a Mason dart into a nifty layup to make it 72-41 and force a timeout from the overmatched Aggies.
Holding a 31-point lead, the Jayhawks coasted to the second round from there. Jackson and Mason checked out with 5:29 to play to huge ovations, matched only by the cheer sparingly used senior guard and Tulsa native Tyler Self received when he checked in with 3:11 left.
Self’s trey with 21 seconds left put the Jayhawks at the century mark in scoring and elicited perhaps the biggest ovation of the night from the partisan crowd, just 220 miles south of Lawrence. The shot wasn’t a dagger — more of a stick crashing against the side of a perished horse, really. But it did seem to represent the perfect finish to a rock-solid evening for the Jayhawks.
“I’ve been really excited to play for a while now, been itching to play for about a week and a half,” Jackson said. “So just coming out there today felt really good to get back out there with the guys.”
And Moneke? Well, Self wasn’t lying about his “good game.” The junior finished with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting, nine rebounds and a reinforced respect for the region’s top dogs — and its top freshman.
“I feel like we had some bad turnovers and some quick shots that led to some runouts, and he made some spectacular plays that were because we didn’t lock in on defense,” Moneke said of Jackson. “And you’re right, yeah, it did change the momentum.”