MANHATTAN — The pregame atmosphere Monday night at Bramlage Coliseum was many things — raucous, venomous and flat-out loud to name a few.
In the eyes of at least one visiting Kansas basketball player, though, it wasn’t intimidating.
KU guard Malik Newman soaked in the surroundings ahead of the Sunflower Showdown clash at rival Kansas State, observing everything from signs and chants targeting the non-collegiate career of departed freshman forward Billy Preston to jeers and mock free-throw gestures directed at 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike, who heard roar after roar following each practice miss from the stripe.
Intimidating? Perhaps to some. Not Newman, though, particularly the Azubuike hazing.
“That was by far one of the funniest pregame moments I’ve ever had,” Newman later said with a smile. “Like, by far.”
If the sellout crowd intimidated any of Newman’s teammates after the ball was actually tipped, well, it certainly didn’t show Monday.
The No. 7-ranked Jayhawks dominated their in-state rival Wildcats, 70-56, racing out to a huge lead and holding on through the Wildcats’ only true push early in the second half. K-State, playing for a tie atop the Big 12 standings at the midpoint of conference play, trailed by double digits six minutes in, 13 by halftime and led for all of 22 seconds.
“I don’t know that (the crowd) was ever out of it,” KU coach Bill Self said, “but this was the best job that we’ve done since I’ve been over here that the crowd didn’t become a big factor late.”
The victory ensured a Sunflower Showdown season sweep for KU, which will retain at least a share of the conference lead when the week’s action is finished. Svi Mykhailiuk had a game-high 20 points for the Jayhawks (18-4, 7-2 Big 12), while Devonte’ Graham (16 points, 11 assists) and Newman (13 points, 10 rebounds) finished with double-doubles.
“We was just trying to stick together,” Newman said of tuning out the crowd. “We knew it was just us in here and we had our backs against the wall. We put our heads down and just fought. We did that the whole 40 minutes and it turned out great for us.”
There would be no “Sandstorm” by Darude over the loudspeakers or accompanying ”(expletive) KU” chant from the student section, the former banned and the latter strongly discouraged by Wildcat athletic director Gene Taylor. And while K-State (16-6, 5-4) cut the Jayhawk advantage to five early in the second half, the Wildcats would get no closer.
Graham, who moved to 3-1 in his career at the “Octagon of Doom,” said taking the crowd out early was a “big part” of the Jayhawks’ game plan.
“It can get real crazy up in here,” Graham said. “I think we did a good job coming out, jumping on ’em, getting that early lead and kind of keeping them not as crazy as they usually get.”
Dean Wade had a team-high 20 points for the Wildcats, who entered the game in a four-way logjam for second place at one game behind the Jayhawks.
“I think we were just not in a rhythm the whole game,” Wade said. “We did not get it inside enough. There are a lot of different things that did not happen that we could have done better.”
Lights-out shooting lifted KU to its halftime lead, but the team’s stroke betrayed it just as quickly to start the second period.
KU made 12 of its first 14 field-goal attempts and 6 of its first 7 shots from beyond the arc en route to a 31-16 advantage with 7:47 left in the first half. K-State cut into the deficit with an 11-1 rally, but the Jayhawks answered with an 8-0 finish to go into the half leading 40-27. A 13-0 advantage in transition points and a 70-percent shooting performance helped the Jayhawks overcome 12 first-half turnovers. The Wildcats, meanwhile, shot just 25.7 percent from the field in the opening period.
The second half, though, was a different story.
KU missed its first 11 field-goal attempts to start the period, allowing the Wildcats to claw back within five on an 8-0 rally. But K-State committed back-to-back turnovers after a KU timeout, and a Mykhailiuk 3-pointer with 12:53 to play represented the team’s first bucket of the half and again built the Jayhawk lead to 10, where it hovered the rest of the way.
Mykhailiuk’s fifth and final 3 gave KU a 14-point edge with just over three minutes to play, effectively icing the team’s third straight victory at Bramlage.
“First half we shot it great but played bad offensively — I mean, we had 12 turnovers,” Self said. “Second half we took care of the ball but shot it miserably. ... Somehow we were able to keep the lead and win both halves, but it was certainly some great shooting the first half and very poor the second half.”
It was another solid performance for KU on the road, where the Jayhawks have dropped only one contest this season, the Jan. 23 tilt at Oklahoma where Azubuike missed six free-throw attempts in the final four minutes en route to an 85-80 defeat.
It’s too early for Self to declare the Jayhawks are a better team on the road, but he acknowledged his squad certainly seems more focused away from Allen Fieldhouse.
“Something about traveling, eating all your meals together, doing scout and having unlimited time to do it, that kind of stuff,” Self said. “Even though it’s only 30 hours together or whatever, I do think we’ve certainly seemed more focused on the road.”
For Graham, playing the role of villain seemed to sharpen that focus.
“It’s a tough place to play, especially when we come here,” Graham. “It’s always just good when you’re playing your rival team to beat up on ’em.”