Despite a brutal 3-game losing streak in February that included a loss to an awful TCU Horned Frog team, the Kansas Jayhawks were named the top seed in the South Region in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Not only were they given a #1 seed, they were given the second overall #1 seed, after the Louisville Cardinals.
The Tournament Committee was evidently able to overlook the Jayhawks’ February slump, in which they lost games at home to Oklahoma State, that stinker against TCU on the road, and another on the road at Oklahoma. The only other two losses for KU was a neutral site loss to Michigan State in their second game of the season, and the last game of the year in Waco against the Baylor Bears. The Jayhawks shared the Big 12 regular season title with the Kansas State Wildcats, then beat the Wildcats for the third time Saturday to win their 9 Big 12 tournament in 17 years. Instead, the Committee must have looked at the fact that KU played 16 games against tournament teams. Not counting the 10 games against Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma, KU also played Michigan State, Ohio State (big win on the road), Colorado, St. Louis, Belmont, and Temple. In all, KU was 13-3 in these games.
In the first round (officially, and annoyingly, the second round now), Kansas will play the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (20-15) of the Sun Belt Conference at approximately 8:50 on Friday night in Kansas City at the Sprint Center. The Hilltoppers went 10-10 in conference but won 4 games in 4 days in their conference tournament to earn the automatic bid. They are the 17th winningest school in NCAA history and this is their 22nd tournament appearance. In 1971, Western Kentucky made it to the Final Four, where they lost to Villanova in the semi finals. Back then, the NCAA had a third place game between the losers of the semi final games. That year, Western Kentucky took third, beating Kansas 77-75 in the consolation game.
The road to the Final Four is seldom an easy path. This year, with no obviously dominant schools, that road promises to be bumpier than usual for top seeded teams. Kansas has proved they can suffer from major lapses (note: the TCU and Baylor games) this season, and in the one-and-done format, it will be all over if that happens. Kansas needs to stay focused on each opponent and take care of their business. For them to advance, they must beat Western Kentucky first for the opportunity to play either our old friend Roy Williams and North Carolina, or Villanova, a team which does a lot of trapping and puts immense pressure on the ball handlers. Looking down the road for other possible pitfalls should Kansas survive the first weekend, possible match-ups include VCU, who fans will remember with distaste, beat KU in the Elite Eight in 2011, or Michigan, a team with terrific guards. Top teams like Georgetown and Florida loom even farther ahead, along with the likes of UCLA and Oklahoma. This path to Atlanta will be fraught with tough opponents and Kansas needs to avoid coming out flat and eliminate those long cold streaks offensively, in which they are prone to.
On the flip side, the Jayhawks present match-up problems for most other teams. Schools will not be used to shot blocking 7-footers on the level of Jeff Withey. They will seldom have played against an athlete like Ben McLemore, or faced a shut down, off the ball defender like Travis Releford. If McLemore can be active in games, Elijah Johnson can rediscover his shooting stroke and quite turning the ball over, and if Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis can continue their stellar play off the bench, the Jayhawks will be a tough out. The great thing, and the heart breaking aspect, of the NCAA Tournament is on any given day, any school, from any conference, can beat any other school, no matter how big the name on the front of the jerseys. Kansas must remember this each and every night out as long as they are still alive. There can be no let downs if they hope to reach a second consecutive Final Four and add another championship banner to Allen Field House. As good as Coach Bill Self is, even he has seen teams under achieve in the tournament. This isn’t because he fails in big games – we all know that isn’t true – but because it is hard to win 4 games in a row, in these conditions, against this kind of competition, to make to a Final Four. Kansas will get everyone’s best shot. The players and coaching staff must be ready. Rock Chalk, Jayhawk. Go KU!