By Morris Phillips
SACRAMENTO–Seventeen seconds into Thursday night’s contest, Kansas’ 7’0″ Udoka Azubuike cruised to the rim for an emphatic dunk. Six minutes later and after a pair of missed shots, Stanford’s leading scorer, Reid Travis responded with a far less attention-grabbing layup.
The timing and impact of the two baskets said it all: Kansas locked in from the start, cruising to a 75-54 victory, while Stanford spent the evening searching for answers to questions that might not find answers until after the Cardinal return home from Sacramento.
In front of a Golden 1 Center crowd that was heavily populated with Kansas supporters and reigning National Player of the Year Frank Mason, now with the Sacramento Kings, the Jayhawks put an end to their issues with Pac-12 schools in one swift act. Normally dominant, Kansas had suffered losses to Arizona State and Washington earlier this month, and a shocking defeat to Oregon in last season’s NCAA Elite Eight at Kansas City. All three losses suggested that the national powerhouse from the Big 12 had slipped. Dominating Stanford on Thursday said just the opposite.
Simply, said Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, “We didn’t allow them to play well.”
Graham’s stern pronouncement stemmed from Kansas’ determination to get Stanford’s leading scorer stopped in his tracks. Travis, who scored 29 points last season at Kansas, and equaled that number (his career high) in the Cardinal’s previous game against USF, had a quiet night, scoring just 12 points, well off his 22.5 ppg average. The Jayhawks rotated a trio of big guards on Travis, all at least two inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than the Stanford star. The quicker Kansas defenders kept Travis from driving. When Travis moved inside, he got attention from everywhere, including the shot blocking Azubuike.
“We did a good job considering how small we were guarding him,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I didn’t think our pressure was very good. We limited his opportunities to get to the glass.”
Most telling was the length of time that it took Travis to get the first of his five baskets. Against USF, Travis scored Stanford’s first eight points of the game. On Thursday, the ball was forced from his hands to his less steady teammates. And without his usual scoring, Travis struggled at the foul line (1 of 3) and on the glass (4 rebounds).
Meanwhile, Azubuike shot 12 of 15, while leading Kansas’ dunk parade (a Kansas beat writer estimated that the Jayhawks had 13 dunks in the game) and playing off his far more offensively-savvy teammates to perfection. The sophomore from Nigeria whose serious pursuit of a basketball career began in the ninth grade, only slightly improved his shooting percentage from the floor from 77.6 percent to 77.9. Kansas shot 52.5 percent for the game, slight above their average which ranks fourth nationally. Not surprisingly, Azubuike’s gaudy shooting percentage ranks number one nationally.
“We didn’t have an answer to be able to stop him, but that lies on my shoulders,” Stanford coach Jerod Haase said of his team’s plan to limit Azubuike. “It was a conscious decision on our part to try and take away as many three-point shots and neutralize the four perimeter players out there as much as possible. That left Mike (Humphrey) and Josh (Sharma) on an island a little bit.”
Stanford again played without much-needed wing players Dorian Pickens and Marcus Sheffield, who are injured, and their absence showed in their less experienced teammates’ statistics. The Cardinal’s three freshman, starters Daejon Davis and Oscar Da Silva along with top reserve Isaac White, combined to miss 13 of their 15 shots. A fourth freshman, Kezie Okpala, made his Stanford debut against Kansas after missing the first 12 games due to academic issues, and gave the Cardinal a shot of energy with his length and defense. But Okpala’s contribution ended there: he also struggled with his shot, missing six of his eight attempts.
The Cardinal shot a chilly 34 percent for the game, which was prominently posted on the gigantic Golden 1 Center video board for all to see. They shot just 30 percent in the second half, and when they reduced their 20-point halftime deficit to 15 on two occasions, little else positive transpired other than the game’s final horn.
Unless you credit the heavy Kansas contingent, who stole the show during timeouts with their KissCam and DanceCam performances. Mason, who Self said has really impressed the Kings’ coaching staff both on and off the floor, sat courtside and did his bit to fire up the crowd during timeouts, shooting halfcourt shots at halftime, and tossing giveaway t-shirts into the crowd. Travis swore the Kansas presence didn’t affect him or his teammates. Graham, who had 14 points and six assists, felt just the opposite.
“Shout out to Jayhawk nation,” Graham said. “They supported us well. It felt like a home game for us. It was a great atmosphere.”
Michael Humphrey led Stanford with 20 points and seven rebounds.
The Cardinal return from a Christmas break on December 30, when they will host California in the Pac-12 opener.