- Jason King
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Every year, before the 42-mile bus ride from Lawrence to Kansas City’s Sprint Center, Bill Self lodges the same complaint toward his KU basketball team.
“He reminds us,” guard Travis Releford said, “that we come over here to Kansas City all the time and don’t have any energy, that we lay an egg.”
Last season it was Baylor and Davidson that upset the eventual NCAA runner-up Jayhawks at Sprint Center. In 2008, Massachusetts and Syracuse shocked KU there, just six months after Self’s squad won the NCAA title.
Jayhawks fans are hopeful the trend won’t continue Tuesday, when Kansas plays Saint Louis in the championship game of the CBE Classic at Sprint Center.
“It’s definitely in our heads,” Releford said. “We look at Kansas City as being our home court. We take pride in not losing at home. We want to play as hard for our fans here as we do in Lawrence.”
The atmosphere Monday hardly resembled the deafening environment that exists on game days at Allen Fieldhouse. Although official attendance figures weren’t announced, Sprint Center looked about 40 percent empty during most of KU’s 78-41 annihilation of Washington State in the tournament semifinal.
Releford scored a team-high 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting for the Jayhawks, who opened the game on a 28-9 run.
“They lit us up,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “They got off to a great start and it never really ended.”
The game was so lopsided that it was hard to blame fans for not shelling out hard-earned money for a 9 p.m. ET game against such a lackluster opponent. The earlier semifinal wasn’t much better, as Saint Louis embarrassed Texas A&M 70-49.
“The crowd was disappointing,” Self said. “It was also 9 on a Monday night. It’s hard to get babysitters on a Monday night. Hopefully we’ll have a bigger crowd [Tuesday]. We love coming over here and playing.”
The dominating performance couldn’t have come at a better time for Kansas, which lost to Michigan State in last week's Champions Classic. Two nights later the Jayhawks had to rally from an eight-point halftime deficit at home to defeat Chattanooga.
After that game, Self expressed frustration with his squad’s offense. He said the Jayhawks weren’t operating in attack mode and that he wanted them to play tougher, faster and with more cohesion. That certainly occurred Monday.
“We ran offense to score in the first half as opposed to running offense just because you’re supposed to run it,” Self said. “We picked our spots a little better. We got the ball where we wanted it and we shared it. That’s probably the best we’ve executed all year.”
Kansas committed just nine turnovers. Defensively, the Jayhawks held Washington State to 29.8 percent shooting. Freshmen Perry Ellis (12 points) and Ben McLemore (11) also scored in double figures for KU, which knows it must play even better if it hopes to defeat Saint Louis.
“They remind me of Davidson,” Self said of the Billikens. “They’re sneaky physical. They don’t give up easy baskets. Their big guys can stretch you, and our ball screen defense has been suspect at best. The way they play could present problems if we’re not amped up and ready to go.”
Much like the Jayhawks, Saint Louis was in desperate need of a confidence boost after last week’s 74-62 home loss to Santa Clara. The setback prompted a team meeting in which coach Jim Crews encouraged his team to leave the game in the past.
“He talked a lot about outside noise,” forward Dwayne Evans said. “We couldn’t let one night spoil the rest of our season.”
The Billikens -- who were picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 -- got a team-high 21 points from Evans Monday. They also received a huge boost from Cory Remekun, who returned to the lineup after missing the first two games with a knee injury. Remekun finished with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
Saint Louis already has dealt with a lot of adversity this season. Crews was named interim coach in August when Rick Majerus took a medical leave to deal with a heart condition. Last week, the school announced that Majerus would not be returning, and named Crews the permanent head coach.
A foot injury that has sidelined leading returning scorer Kwamain Mitchell hasn’t helped matters. The Billikens, though, have fought through those issues and appear ready to challenge Kansas.
“We know they’re a really good team,” Releford said. “We know it’s going to be a tough game.”