If Selection Sunday is any indication, the Kansas Jayhawks should enter the NCAA Tournament feeling lucky.
While it’s true this team experienced way too many valleys during an at times rocky regular season to make any assumptions about what’s in store for the Jayhawks this week in Salt Lake City, Utah, their potential next stop was too massive to ignore.
A nine-loss KU team that is seeded fourth has no business playing in Kansas City, Mo., in the Sweet 16. But if — and this “if” should be deciphered in a font size 10 times larger than this — the Jayhawks handle their business against No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday and are then able to advance past either No. 5 Auburn or No. 13 New Mexico State, they’ll be right back at Sprint Center less than two weeks from now.
That hardly seems fair for the No. 1 seed in the region, North Carolina, and its leader, former KU coach Roy Williams, should the two blue bloods advance out of the opening weekend.
But this isn’t about fairness. It has much more to do with fortuity, at least on the Kansas side. On the NCAA Tournament’s master list of seeds, Nos. 1-68, KU landed at No. 13 — considered the best No. 4 seed in the field, ahead of No. 14 Florida State, No. 15 Kansas State and No. 16 Virginia Tech. And in that spot, the Jayhawks ended up in their preferred regional, the Midwest.
Good for Kansas. Bad for UNC.
Imagine if the sneakers were on the other feet — and we’re not talking Nike and Adidas. What if KU was a No. 1 seed and playing against a No. 4 seeded UNC team in Charlotte, N.C., in the Sweet 16? Those who wear crimson and blue might have been too livid to even fill out a bracket.
So is it really fair for a No. 1 seed to potentially have to travel to Kansas City, Mo., and play KU in an arena 43.3 miles away from Allen Fieldhouse?
“I’m not going to get into that,” Bill Self said Sunday evening, after the brackets were unveiled. “But I would say that, to me, if you win two games in the tournament, you know you’re going to play a really good team. And you know it’s probably going to be a neutral deal in a situation like that (the Sweet 16). But this won’t be a neutral deal if everyone advances.”
Self’s right. If the bracket were to go chalk, KU supporters could be rock-chalking it up in K.C. next week in a year when the Jayhawks didn’t win the Big 12 regular season or postseason titles.
Dedric Lawson admitted that possibility didn’t even hit him at first as the Jayhawks watched the selection show, until an on-air analyst brought it up.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ We’ve just got to win these games and get back home,’” Lawson shared.
According to Self, even if KU, UNC and Kentucky were to move on and get to K.C., all of those blue-blood fan bases could be outnumbered if the region’s No. 6 seed, the Big 12’s postseason champs, can stay hot.
“If you throw Iowa State in, if they advance, I mean they’ll have more fans there than anybody,” Self predicted.
Of course, as Self said while discussing such scenarios, we’re all getting way ahead of ourselves. But ’tis the season.
“I still think what wins more than anything is talent and talented players playing together at the right time,” Self said.
Still, even KU’s head coach couldn’t think about the possibility of a KU-UNC Sweet 16 game without recalling the last time the two programs met up, in 2013.
“Certainly we had an opportunity to play Carolina the first weekend in Kansas City and that was a pretty significant advantage for us at that particular time,” Self remembered of a 70-58 victory for No. 1 KU over No. 8 UNC in KU’s home away from home.
The Jayhawks weren’t wearing green when Selection Sunday happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, but they’ve got to be feeling a little charmed.
Good thing, too, because sometimes when March Madness comes around, it’s better to be fortunate than proven.
New Mexico State hasn’t lost a college basketball game since Jan. 17. Winners of 13 straight, the Aggies hope to keep that streak alive Friday in Omaha, Nebraska, against national powerhouse Kansas.
Dancing in March for the fourth season in a row, NMSU (23-10) also has a chance to deal the Big 12 (0-3 on the first day of The Madness) another NCAA Tournament blow — if it can find a way to topple the Midwest’s No. 2 seed, KU (26-8).
The WAC regular-season and tournament champion Aggies lost at Baylor, 66-55, back on Dec. 17. But this is March. And upsets rule supreme.
If New Mexico State wants to test — or upset — Kansas, it will have to do so with its defense. The Aggies are:
19th in the NCAA in scoring defense (59.3 points allowed)
10th in 3-point FG% defense (29.3%)
19th in rebound margin: +6.9 boards a game
The Aggies do all of that while playing pressure defense, and an adapting half-court zone that actually specializes in taking away open 3-point looks.
Asked to describe NMSU’s defense, sixth man D.K. Eldridge labeled it the ever-popular “40 minutes of hell.”
“We try to make it impossible to bring the ball across half court,” Eldridge said. “It mostly comes from all our deflections. We keep count of that. Daniel (Mullings) leading in deflections right now. Myself, Ian (Baker) can do it. And our back wall guys, they very athletic and make plays, as well.”
In summation: It’s the kind of approach that opponents hate.
In order to get to know the Aggies better, I asked senior guard Eldridge to provide his take on each of NMSU’s top six players.
No. 3 — Remi Barry, 6-8, 225 senior F
— Season stats: 13.3 points, 46.3% FGs, 44.6% 3s (41-for-92), 76.6% FTs, 4.8 rebounds
“Coming off an injury from last year, he’s had a very successful year. He brings scoring to the table and he’s a part of our defense with his length.”
“He knows his role. He don’t get outside his box too much.”
No. 43 — Pascal Siakam, 6-9, 230 freshman F
— Season stats: 13 points, 57.7% FGs, 0-for-2 3s, 76.3% FTs, 7.7 rebounds (4.4 offensive), 1.8 blocks
“Oh, man. He an animal down low. Only a freshman, though. That’s what’s crazy about it. He’s got a lot left. Hopefully this’ll give him experience to have confidence for the future.”
“He’s very athletic, rebounds, scores the ball really well. He plays hard every possession.”
No. 23 — Daniel Mullings, 6-2, 170, senior G
— Season stats: 12.6 points, 43.5% FGs, 36.1% 3s, 70.8% FTs, 5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2 steals
“He’s the head of the program. A very good player, athletic, very strong competitor.”
“Similar to myself, we just go out there and do what we do best: play hard every possession, give it our all for 40 minutes.”
“He’s a very strong driver, capable shooter, very good defense on the ball and off the ball.”
No. 15 — Tshilidzi Nephawe, 6-10, 268, senior C
— Season stats: 10.4 points, 53.1% FGs, 62.1% FTs, 7.6 rebounds
“Just call him ‘Chili.’ He gets mad if you don’t say his nickname.”
“Just a big presence down low. Offense, it’s hard to stop him. Big, strong kid. A guy you want to get the ball to every time. You know you’re gonna get a bucket out of him.”
“On the defensive end, he just change shots, rebound, guard. He can get down and guard guards if he want to.”
“His conditioning got better. He came off an injury not too long ago (missed 12 games before returning in mid-January).”
“He’s a senior, does the right things. Not too many mistakes — on and off the court. He’s a guy that you want, and we want. We’re lucky to have him on our team.”
No. 4 — Ian Baker, 6-0, 180, sophomore PG
— Season stats: 9.5 points, 47.8% FGs, 47.2% 3s (58-for-123), 75.9% FTs, 2.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals
“He brings a lot. For being a young player, he’s a very experienced guy. He’s very mature at his position.”
“He can shoot the ball very well. He can lead the team on offense, and when he wants to he can play very good ‘D.’”
“He comes from a family with a lot of older brothers, so I think that’s why his maturity is so strong. … He’s a very good leader. We listen to him. He puts us in the right position to win games, hits a lot of big shots for us… When we’re in a deep situation, he’ll get us out of it.”
No. 1 — D.K. Eldridge, 6-2, 180, senior G
— Season stats: 8.1 points, 38.6% FGs, 28.1% 3s (34-for-121), 63.3% FTs, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals
Eldridge considers himself a defensive-minded guy.
“That’s where my offense comes from most of the time — playing good ‘D.’ I know this team needs me in that category, so I just try my best to come off the bench and bring energy, especially when the starting five’s not feeling too energetic.”
As the 2015 NCAA Tournament bracket got unveiled Sunday evening, it quickly became clear Kansas University might have one of the most difficult roads to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
KU coach Bill Self discussed his team’s Friday matchup with a solid No. 15 seed, New Mexico State, as well as a potential Round of 32 game against Wichita State Sunday evening, following the selection show.
Oh, yeah. One more thing: Kentucky is the No. 1 seed in KU’s Midwest region.
Here are some highlights from the press conference:
• Saturday’s result against Iowa State in the Big 12 final might not have mattered for KU’s seeding. It would have been hard to pass Gonzaga on the 2-seed line. KU got what it should have in ending up in Kentucky’s bracket, because the other No. 2 seeds probably had better years.
• New Mexico State (23-10) had some injuries this season and that is why have lost some of the games they did.
KU could face Wichita State in the Round of 32, and Self couldn’t believe the Shockers got a No. 7 seed.
• If this KU team gets a chance to play in the Elite Eight game, against Kentucky, “it’s been a hell of a year.”
The Jayhawks don’t even have to talk about that right now. Hopefully they will get to talk about that next week.
• Kansas took Sunday off from practicing. Kansas City was taxing on the team. They are beat up. Playing Friday helps KU. There is an extra day to get healthy, get bodies back fresh.
Perry Ellis isn’t close to being where he needs to be, but these four days will be big for him getting that bounce back.
• Self saw New Mexico State while flipping channels last night. He goes through all the teams that could end up being Nos. 15 or 16 seeds, and he had New Mexico State as a No. 13 seed.
“It is a hard first game, and we need to be ready come Friday.” When KU is good, it is really good. But it can’t afford to take 5 or 10 minutes off like it did against Iowa State.
• Self was pleased to see seven Big 12 teams get into the Big Dance.
• Self told the players: “You know how many bullets we’ve dodged?” in his time at KU, in terms of potential NCAA Tournament matchups. It isn’t guaranteed KU will play Wichita State.
• KU has always had a good crowd in Omaha, Nebraska, and Wisconsin will travel great, too. KU has had some good runs going through Omaha, too: The Jayhawks won it in 2008 and got to the final in 2012 after playing in Omaha.
• Larry Brown and SMU got in, and Self thought that might end up being a Round of 32 matchup for Kansas. Instead it was Wichita State.
• The guys are excited, and one guy who should be more excited than anybody else is Ellis. That is a pretty big potential matchup for him, maybe facing his hometown program in Wichita State next Sunday.
• Kentucky was a lot better than Kansas that day they met in November, but that team is even better now. KU is better, too.
There might not ever have been a team as favored going into the tournament as Kentucky.
• Self thinks KU has had a real good season, but you have to accomplish some things in the next few weeks to make it memorable.
For KU, losing to ISU, there was a little hangover, but that’s gone now.
• KU could have an exciting next few weeks potentially, with maybe the chance to play the hottest team in the ACC in Notre Dame and the prohibitive favorite in Kentucky.
• Self doesn’t think he should even talk about Cliff Alexander anymore with the media. If new information comes out, then he will.
• Landen Lucas is banged up and at this point in time, they need him and every player as healthy as possible. KU can be as close to whole as it has been in a while very soon.
• Self talked to the entire team after the TCU game on Thursday about how disappointing that was, and part of that was the way Wayne Selden Jr. played. Selden responded perfectly in the next two days.
• KU didn’t have the same intensity level in the second half vs. Iowa State, but still had a chance to win it late after being down 7 points.
Another positive came the night before with how KU rebounded and defended against Baylor.
But the bottom line is they need Ellis back playing to his potential.
• The Big 12 didn’t do well as a league in the NCAAs last season, after a strong regular season.
This year was another strong campaign, and the seeding reflected that. To validate that you need to have three or four teams get to that second weekend.
— Listen to the complete press conference: Bill Self reacts to Selection Sunday, KU's draw
— Hear from Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr.: Ellis and Selden discuss the NCAA Tournament