LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball isn’t often, if ever, overshadowed by the university’s aching football program, but with 11 minutes left in the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks’ home contest Friday night against Louisiana, that’s exactly what happened.
“Le-es Mi-les,” exclaimed the student section, adding an extra syllable to the first word and five claps after the last. “Le-es Mi-les!”
The chants were the first public acknowledgement from the well-informed Jayhawk faithful of reports Friday that the former national championship-winning head football coach at LSU is in final negotiations with KU for its own opening at that position, a jarring public show of support for a program in the midst of its 10th consecutive losing campaign.
There was still unfinished business at hand, though, for what isn’t a football school — just yet.
Nursing a five-point advantage at the time of the mid-timeout chant, KU erupted down the stretch, overpowering the Ragin’ Cajuns en route to an 89-76 victory not reflective of the tit-for-tat nature of the contest. Fresh off a 32-point performance in the Jayhawks’ last contest, Lagerald Vick pitched in a career-high 33-point effort on 11-for-18 shooting with seven 3-pointers to power his at times sloppy squad to the expected outcome.
“Frank (Mason) had some unbelievably efficient games, and I’m sure some of ’em were back-to-back, and Devonte’ (Graham), I know he had a couple of 30-point games last year if I’m not mistaken,” KU coach Bill Self said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody have a week like this, and we needed ’em.”
The Jayhawks (3-0) held a three-point lead at the conclusion of an electric first half that saw a pair of dramatic momentum swings.
Buoyed by a 22-point performance from Justin Miller in the game’s first 14 minutes — the 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward’s previous career-high had previously been 21 points — the Ragin’ Cajuns (1-2) opened up a 12-point lead, 32-20, on the heels of a 17-3 run. The final two points of the rally came on Marcus Stroman free throws, the result of a technical foul assessed to Self.
Coincidence or not, the Jayhawks came alive after Self’s technical, responding with a 17-3 run of their own to retake the lead. KU played the final eight minutes of the half with a unique lineup of guards Vick, Quentin Grimes, Charlie Moore and Marcus Garrett around forward David McCormack, the latter in for foul-plagued starting center Udoka Azubuike. The group was effective — particularly Vick, who scored 11 of his team-high 18 first-half points in the final eight minutes.
Vick, who went 8 of 8 on 3-point attempts in the Jayhawks’ 84-68 victory Monday over Vermont, gave the Jayhawks the lead for good Friday with a pair of treys in the final 80 seconds of the opening period. The second, a heat-check heave launched from NBA range with 43 seconds left, gave KU its 44-41 halftime edge.
Walking up the court after the make, Vick puffed out his cheeks, a different look from the tongue-out response to some of his earlier and subsequent makes.
“He’s so enthusiastic now, almost to a fault — but I’m not going to stop him from being that way,” Self said with a smile. “I like the direction it’s moving.”
KU opened up a double-digit lead, 61-51, in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t go away — Jeremy Hayes’ layup cut the deficit to one, 65-64, with 8:40 to play. Louisiana, though, appeared to run out of steam down the stretch, committing four turnovers in the next five minutes in a sequence that saw KU balloon its lead back to double-digits, 77-67, on an Azubuike jam with 3:47 remaining.
Sensing victory soon after that moment, Vick lifted both arms up and down, lifting the crowd to a frenzy as the senior guard returned to the huddle during a timeout.
There would be no chants for Miles during that break in the action. Back-to-back dunks by Azubuike out of that timeout, with a double-armed flex sandwiched in between, sealed the at times in-doubt outcome.
Dedric Lawson scored 19 points and Azubuike pitched in 17 to round out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks, who also got a team-high nine rebounds and 40 minutes from Vick.
Asked if he’s seeing greater effort from Vick than in any of the Memphis, Tenn., native’s previous three seasons, Self said it's possible the guard is simply playing with a more free mind.
“When you have energy and your thoughts are positive, it just looks to me like you’re playing faster and maybe looks like you’re playing harder,” Self said. “The thing about it is, when your mind is cluttered, no matter how hard you play, it doesn’t really look like you’re playing quite as hard.”
KU continues its campaign with a pair of contests in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., beginning with a 6 p.m. Wednesday tilt with No. 24 Marquette.
The football team, by the way, is a 35-point underdog in its 6:30 p.m. Saturday contest at No. 6 Oklahoma. Before Self left his postgame media session, the Hall of Fame coach was asked an indirect question but very much one in the backdrop of Friday night's chants for Miles:
How much can real, genuine, honest-to-goodness fan enthusiasm for the football program lift the entire athletic department?
“I’ve always said this: I’m proud of our sport and what we’ve accomplished and the energy we can bring to a campus and all that stuff, but there’s still nothin’ like a fall Saturday to bring energy and excitement to your school,” Self responded. “So I think there is an opportunity to do that here, because we’ve seen it firsthand. If you’ve followed us for a decade, you’ve seen it firsthand on what can be accomplished. Even though that was also lightning in a bottle too, but still though, it can be done here.
“I think it’s very, very important that we do some things to generate that, and I’m selfish because I know how good football being competitive and putting people in the seats makes my job and makes all the other head coaches in the departments’ jobs easier, too.”