No one ever claimed emerging from the madness of March as the NCAA Tournament’s champion was easy. But some paths are more difficult than others.
In Lawrence, the 1988 title captured by “Danny and The Miracles” will live on forever not only because national championships are in their very nature elusive and memorable, but also because Larry Brown and Danny Manning guided KU to that glory as a No. 6 seed. It was one of the more improbable and formidable runs in college basketball lore.
Where does it rank among the most demanding roads to a championship? Well, according to a study from Luke Benz of Yale University’s Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, KU’s 1988 ascension stands out more than most since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Per the breakdown, the 2014 Connecticut Huskies are the champions of grueling title runs, after winning it all as a No. 7 seed. And only the classic, Cinderella-esque 1985 Villanova Wildcats (a No. 8 seed) also rank ahed of the ’88 Jayhawks.
Interestingly, the data used to compile the list takes into account more than a given team’s seeding in the year it won. The research involves NCAA Tournament history and the frequencies with which a specific seed beats a team from another particular seed line.
Here’s how the author, Benz, explains it: “For example, since 1985, 5 seeds have beaten 12 seeds 63.5% of the time, meaning a victory for the 5 seed in the game would net a Game Difficulty Rating of 0.365. Finally, I computed the total difficulty of a team’s championship by summing all of its Game Difficulty Ratings en route to the title.”
The analysis emerged in response to current tourney buzz surrounding Gonzaga’s first trip to the Final Four, with many arguing the Zags had far too easy a road to navigate. So the list includes projections for this year’s national semifinalists and where they would rank all-time should they cut down the nets this coming Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. As it turns out, Frank Martin’s seventh-seeded South Carolina team, with two more victories, would dethrone 2014 UConn.
Anyway, back to the KU angle of this thought-provoking examination of tournament feats. You might be somewhat surprised to learn KU’s 2008 championship ranks as the fifth-easiest on the list.
The Jayhawks had to beat a pair of No. 1 seeds in North Carolina and Memphis to raise another banner in Allen Fieldhouse, but Bill Self’s Jayhawks beat teams seeded 16th, eighth, 12th and 10th prior to reaching the Final Four.
Studying the list from another angle, some KU teams played a part in other programs’ arduous routes to the NCAA championship. Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony topped Kansas in the 2003 title game, and the Orange just behind the 1988 Jayhawks. Melo’s crowning achievement comes in one spot ahead of Arizona’s 1997 run, when the Wildcats in the Sweet 16 knocked out a two-loss KU team that included future NBA lottery picks Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce.
What’s more, Villanova’s 2016 championship, which included an Elite Eight victory over Kansas, ranks as the eighth-most difficult championship to date.
— Check out the complete list and breakdown from Yale’s Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group: NCAA Championship Difficulties
Kansas City, Mo. — As has become the norm for the reserve big man during his debut season with Kansas, Dwight Coleby’s numbers Thursday night against Purdue didn’t jump off the final stat sheet and leave anyone in awe.
But his top-seeded Jayhawks needed everything they got out of Coleby’s 13 minutes off the bench at Sprint Center, where KU limited the Boilermakers’ powerful front line and advanced to the Elite Eight with a 98-66 beating of fourth-seeded Purdue.
The 6-foot-9 Coleby and sophomore guard Lagerald Vick, one of the night’s numerous stars for KU in a Sweet 16 rout, gave a couple starters a breather less than five minutes into what evolved into a Kansas track meet late.
“I expected to play a big role,” Coleby said at the end of a night when his two points and two rebounds didn’t tell the full story of how he battled inside with massive Purdue bigs Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, “but I had no idea I’d be the first off the bench or something like that. I just take it as it comes and I’m always ready.”
That showed less than 30 seconds after the big man checked in, when Coleby handled a difficult pass from Josh Jackson and kicked the ball out to a wide-open Devonte’ Graham for one of the junior guard’s five successful 3-pointers.
Just more than a minute later, Coleby benefited from a Vick post-feed and scored easily inside.
Initially, though, Landen Lucas’ fill-in wasn’t matching the starting center’s defensive prowess. The Boilermakers’ massive backup big, 7-2 Haas, pinned Coleby in the paint within arm’s reach of the rim and scored over him easily.
When Coleby subbed out, though, he received some more positive reenforcement than scorn.
“Just play better defense. Just do your work early and you should be fine,” Coleby related of the message, a reminder of KU’s game plan to stop Swanigan and Haas.
The junior from Nassau, Bahamas, didn’t feel satisfied with his seven first-half minutes because of his defensive lapses. But Coleby said he got a second wind for the second half, when he, Lucas, Jackson and Carlton Bragg Jr. helped keep Haas scoreless and limited Swanigan to three two-point field goals on six attempts — Purdue’s star big stepped outside to knock down two 3-pointers, which Coleby said KU could live with.
“He was huge,” Kansas junior guard Devonte’ Graham said, when asked about Coleby’s contributions. “We have been telling him, ‘Be ready when your number is called,’ and he's been doing a great job in practice. He's been looking ready since the tournament started and we're going to need him to keep playing like that.”
The reserve helped KU survive a night when Lucas had to navigate four fouls and played just 20 minutes, in part because the Jayhawks blew Purdue out down the stretch.
Like Coleby did earlier in the week, in KU’s second-round win over Michigan State, he left his teammates impressed with his preparedness.
“We never know,” Frank Mason III said, “when guys are going to get in foul trouble or something like that, so they have to be ready and he did a great job of coming in and being confident and being ready to play.”
Now just a win away from KU’s first Final Four trip since 2012, coach Bill Self credited Coleby’s role in the team’s latest tourney rout.
“Obviously, Dwight bought us a ton of minutes whenever Landen was in foul trouble,” Self said. “But I thought Carlton came in and did a good job, too. You add those guys together you get 23 key minutes out of that position when Landen can't be in the game. So I think they both kind of bailed us out.”
Though one might assume Coleby is riding the excitement of two productive March Madness outings in a row, at the tail end of a season in which his minutes usually varied between sparing and none, the steady big man isn’t getting carried away.
“I feel great. But we can’t worry about this game,” Coleby said, minutes after KU reached a regional final and a Saturday night (7:49) matchup with Oregon. “This game is over. We’ve just got to move forward and try to win the next one.”
Kansas City, Mo. — A finite number of games remain in Josh Jackson’s college basketball career. And although his first 33 in a Kansas uniform have included a 31-point show, 11 double-doubles, 50 dunks and countless examples of the kind of floor vision one just doesn’t expect out of a 6-foot-8 freshman, we have not yet seen the best of Jackson.
That’s what the projected top-three pick in this June’s NBA Draft told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 showdown with Purdue.
Jackson conceded he has had his share of performances he would grade as “good games” in specific areas, “whether it be scoring or playing defense or passing the ball,” KU’s latest basketball prodigy said. “I don’t think I’ve had a game yet this season where I’ve put it all together in one game.”
That might initially come across as an absurd statement, but it’s an example of what Jackson expects from himself and what he knows top-seeded KU (30-4) needs from him in order to do something extraordinary during this NCAA Tournament.
Be honest. Do you really remember anything in particular about Jackson’s 31-point game at Texas Tech in February? That’s a big number and it’s basically forgettable at this juncture because the first-year (or: one-year) perimeter star has so much talent in so many aspects of the game. You know he’s capable of far more striking outings and so does he.
Jackson enters Thursday night’s game against the fourth-seeded Boilermakers (27-7) averaging 16.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists, with a 51.7% field-goal percentage and 38.6% accuracy from 3-point range (43.5% in Big 12 play). While Jackson’s free throws (56.7% on the season) have been one relative weakness, he has led KU in scoring nine times, in rebounds 11 times and in assists four times.
His defensive impact — as witnessed when Kansas lost to TCU at Sprint Center two weeks ago while Jackson served a one-game suspension — is just as key. Fourteen times this season the freshman has led KU in steals, a number one better than the occasions when he finished as the team leader in blocks (13).
When asked what makes him so effective as a basketball player, Jackson referenced his basketball I.Q., height and athleticism after first naming his greatest intangible, his competitive drive. Those qualities combined make it easy to visualize Jackson out-doing himself against Purdue, and improving upon his 23-point outing against Michigan State this past weekend, when he only grabbed three rebounds and shockingly passed out zero assists.
KU couldn’t have picked a better time to see Jackson’s confidence continue to grow, and it’s coinciding with the Jayhawks peaking as a team, according to him.
“I think we’re playing the best defense that we’ve played all year,” Jackson said, “and I feel like it’s getting better and better every game. I feel like it’ll be even better (versus Purdue).”
In the past four games with Jackson on the floor, Kansas held Oklahoma to 34.9% shooting, Oklahoma State to 42.3%, UC-Davis to 33.9% and Michigan State to 43.9%. The Jayhawks defended the 3-point arc admirably in those wins, too: OU shot 28.6%, OSU 33.3%, UCD 20% and MSU 34.8%.
A reporter asked Jackson Wednesday if Kansas is the best team in the Sweet 16. He didn’t hesitate to answer: “In my opinion, yes.”
“We have a lot of things that other teams don’t have. Well, for one, we have Frank Mason,” Jackson began, with a chuckle. “Two, we’ve got guys who know their role and are really good at doing their role and we’ve got an amazing coach. We’ve got a coach who really knows basketball, trusts his players and gives us a lot of freedom.”
Indeed, Bill Self has equipped Jackson to do it all for this Kansas team, and the trust the freshman has earned from his coach and teammates makes it possible for him to overshadow other moments in his dazzling season every time the ball is tipped.
More news and notes previewing Kansas vs. Purdue
- Star players illustrate contrasting styles in KU-Purdue, Sweet 16 showdown
- Tom Keegan: Passing key to Kansas running game
- Notebook: No extra motivation necessary for Jayhawks in Sweet 16
- Boilermakers bracing for KU-friendly environment at Sprint Center
- Kansas set to face Caleb ‘Biggie’ Swanigan — or Mr. Double-Double
- Former Gene Keady players wearing suits and ties on both benches of Purdue-Kansas game
- Most player of the year votes counted before Mason and Swanigan tip off
- Gameday Breakdown, Sweet 16: KU vs. Purdue
Throughout the Kansas basketball team’s second-round NCAA Tournament showdown with Michigan State, it seemed the game would not be decided until the final few possessions. Then, over the course of the last seven minutes, it went from a two-score game to a 90-70 Jayhawks victory.
How, exactly, does that happen?
“It didn’t seem like it,” Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said of the vibe on the court ahead of the final 20-point margin, “and the scoreboard didn’t show it, but as a team we felt pretty confident about what we were doing.”
Essentially, KU’s collective will to advance didn’t falter when the Spartans repeatedly challenged the Midwest’s top seed with runs of their own and answers to Kansas scores for the first 30 or so minutes in Tulsa, Okla.
The Jayhawks (30-4) not only remained steadfast in coach Bill Self’s plan, but also cranked up their intensity for the stretch run. MSU cut the KU lead, which already had poked into double-digit territory three times, to five with 7:16 to play. From there, Kansas outscored the Spartans 21-6, held its foe to 2-for-8 shooting and advanced on to the Sweet 16 by converting eight of its 10 final shots.
Several sequences keyed the win for the Jayhawks and they’re the exact types of plays they’ll have to replicate in bunches Thursday at Sprint Center, in Kansas City, Mo., to move past an even better Big Ten challenger — No. 4 seed Purdue (27-7) — on the path to the Final Four.
The Boilermakers’ personnel obviously differs from the makeup of the MSU roster, particularly when it comes to experience and the paint presence of Purdue’s double-double machine, Caleb Swanigan, and his 7-foot-3 wingspan. But the types of plays Kansas made in crunch time against Michigan State should not be forgotten, because many of them had more to do with effort than matchups.
Here are six concepts and standout moments from KU’s final eight minutes of Round 2 that the Jayhawks need to keep in mind moving forward.
- Opponents can get caught up paying too much attention to stars
Josh Jackson (23 points, 9-for-16 shooting) gave MSU headaches all game, so as the end approached, defenders zeroed in on Jackson even more.
On one possession, the star freshman made a cut from the left wing to the paint, then moved on out to the right wing, while Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham exchanged a hand off on the perimeter. With the Spartans worried about those three stars, backup Lagerald Vick made a hard backdoor cut for the paint and Graham sent a pass toward the hoop for a thunderous alley-oop before Vick’s defender had a shot at reacting and recovering.
- Trust your seniors
Just after MSU made it a five-point game, Mason and Lucas worked a variation of the pick-and-roll to perfection. The big man set a screen for his point guard just after Mason caught a pass on on the left side of the floor. When Lucas’ man took a step too far to help on Mason, Lucas bounded toward the paint and met a lob above the rim for an easy slam.
The two seniors will need to assert themselves on both ends of the floor when games get tight. Their ability to execute will ease tensions and increase KU’s chances of moving on.
- Get it and go
This is an idea these Jayhawks have thoroughly embraced and there’s no need to change it just because the lights are brighter, the competition is stiffer and the score may be close. Mason, Graham and Jackson love throwing the ball ahead for potential numbers every time Kansas takes the ball away or snags an opportunistic defensive board.
When backup big Dwight Coleby came away with a steal and got the ball to Jackson late in the second half, the freshman knew what to do. About four seconds after Coleby secured the turnover, Jackson had zoomed up the the floor in four dribbles for a fast-break layup.
- Embrace the moment
Kansas didn’t miss many shots down the stretch, but when Jackson released an unsuccessful 3-pointer with his team up 10, seldom-utilized backup Coleby secured the offensive rebound to extend the possession. A couple passes later, Graham buried a 3-pointer.
Role players tend to find their way into the spotlight during critical junctures in March. Whether it be Coleby, Vick, Carlton Bragg Jr. or even starter Svi Mykhailiuk, the Jayhawks need their less heralded players to step up when opportunities present themselves late in games. Often that’s the only way to advance.
- This is why you brought Jackson to KU
Accurately, Self will tell you any number of his perimeter players are capable of bursting out and fueling offensive runs that alter the outcomes of games. Mason might be the national player of the year for that very reason. But there is no denying the most talented, potentially dominating presence on the floor wears No. 11.
The NCAA Tournament stage hasn’t looked too big for Jackson — he just took over for stretches versus a MSU program filled with friends and a coach who heavily recruited him to become a Spartan. During the game’s final six minutes, Jackson made two free throws, scored a layup, grabbed a defensive rebound and threw down a vicious one-handed jam after driving in from the top of the key in a half-court set.
Jackson has the competitive drive of Mason but also operates with the advantages of existing in a 6-foot-8, NBA-ready frame. He can carry a team to a Final Four if he needs to.
- Defend like it’s only thing that matters
It will take prolonged defensive focus for the Jayhawks to extend their season from here on out. Lucas explained how they turned a five-point game into a massive gap by the final buzzer against Michigan State.
“We knew that the reason that it was so close was because we weren’t executing the keys that the coaches were talking about: stopping in transition, easy buckets here and there,” Lucas explained. “And as soon as we talked about that and tightened those things up, we knew that we were gonna extend the lead. And we did that, and next thing you know it was pretty out of hand.”
In an NCAA Tournament clash featuring two of college basketball’s most thriving programs, a fleeting moment during a dead ball situation became as memorable as any highlight-reel jam or crucial late-game basket Sunday, in Tulsa, Okla.
Well on his way to going down as one of those transcendent Kansas basketball stars, senior point guard Frank Mason III drove to the basket for a first-half lay-in like he has umpteen times over the course of the past four seasons. On this particular strike, the 5-foot-11 dynamo left his counterpart, Michigan State guard Tum Tum Nairn, in a heap out of bounds.
In the aftermath of the play, Mason remained near the baseline waiting for the game to resume. That irked Nairn’s freshman teammate, Miles Bridges, who stepped chest-to-chest with Mason to let him know about it.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bridges stared down a good eight inches into Mason’s eyes. KU’s uncompromising, 185-pound leader didn’t as much as blink — almost as if to say, “Bridges, I’m Frank Mason.”
Mason plays at an All-American level nearly every time he steps on the court for Kansas, and that’s one of many reasons the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory over the Spartans. His bravado, though, as seen when the bigger Bridges tried harassing Mason, gives the Jayhawks an edge, as well.
Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said each of Mason’s teammates know they go to battle with a point guard who won’t show any fear, regardless of his stature.
“We’re all one team, one unit. We’re gonna feed off each other. We fed off of him,” Lucas said, describing how Mason’s interaction with Bridges fired up the Jayhawks.
A predictable smile covered Devonte’ Graham’s face when reminded of Bridges’ failed bullying attempt.
“My boy Frank is not going for none of that,” Mason’s backcourt mate said. “He’s not intimidated by anybody. He thinks he can guard LeBron, so nobody’s gonna intimidate him.”
Watching the scene from the bench at the time, backup big man Dwight Coleby said Mason’s cohorts knew he wasn’t about to back down.
“We was hyped. I was watching like, ‘Yeah,’” Coleby recalled, clapping for emphasis. “‘Let’s go. Let’s go.’”
Lucas revealed the Jayhawks heard plenty of trash talk during their second-round victory. No one ever would accuse Tom Izzo of failing to fully prepare his Michigan State basketball players for any game, let alone one in the postseason. So it must’ve been the Spartans’ idea to try and get in the heads of Mason and his KU teammates. And Bridges’ ploy flatlined.
“I think that’s silly if you’re trying to intimidate Frank,” Lucas said, “because that’s not gonna happen very often. Especially from a freshman. We’ve been through this before. We’ve been through a lot of things and that’s the last thing we’re worried about.”
Bill Self’s Kansas teams often are associated with their toughness, and no one on this year’s roster personifies that trait more than Mason.
“I think we all play with a lot of pride. We all believe in each other, and I think it starts with coach,” Mason said when asked about KU’s grit. “He really gets on to us in practice and he make us compete. And you know, it just carries on to the games. And I’m just proud of the way my teammates played and the great job that my coaches did.”
The image of Mason standing up to Bridges was a lasting one for anyone who saw the game, as well as the Petersburg, Va., native himself. KU’s Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy candidate posted a photo of Bridges’ scare tactic on Instagram after the game, dismissing the notion that someone’s chatter would rattle him.
“I’m about action,” Mason wrote, “like a movie.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Going into any given game, Kansas backup big man Dwight Coleby never knows how much — or how little — head coach Bill Self will decide to use him.
Twelve times so far during his junior season, the 6-foot-9 reserve from Nassau, Bahamas, never ventured to the scorer’s table to check in for the Jayhawks. So one can imagine his surprise and delight when Coleby, after watching the entire first half of KU’s second-round matchup with Michigan State from the bench Sunday at BOK Center, heard his name called in the midst of a tight second half, in the NCAA Tournament.
What began as an opportunity to give starting center Landen Lucas a breather evolved into a much larger responsibility when Lucas picked up his third foul midway through the second half. Before long, Coleby, who entered the game averaging 5.1 minutes and 1.7 points on the season, began finishing defensive stops with rebounds and extending possessions with offensive boards.
Few would have predicted as much prior to tip-off, but Coleby played as big a part in Kansas advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory as anyone wearing a KU uniform.
“He saved my career,” senior center Lucas said after his understudy contributed three points, four rebounds and a steal in 9 second-half relief minutes. “He made some big plays. I’m not trying to go home. We’re trying to win a championship and that’s what it takes, guys being ready and he was ready.”
Two days earlier, Coleby only logged seven minutes in a game that never was in doubt versus UC-Davis, in the opening round. Though he fully understands his role with the team, the backup big said he always hopes to earn more time.
“It’s the brightest stage and I want to play,” Coleby said, when asked how he stays mentally focused while never being sure what will be asked of him, “so I’m just ready the whole time.”
A studious observer, he doesn’t mind doing much of his research from his seat on the bench.
“I just watch Landen, and everything he does and how he defends,” Coleby shared. “Whatever he does, I just try to pick up on it and ask him questions.”
It’s a quality that can be difficult to master but Coleby said he felt prepared long before his coach called his name.
Listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds, Coleby looks more the part of a prototypical Michigan State post player than KU sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. During one second-half sequence, Bragg couldn’t finish over MSU’s Nick Ward after snagging an offensive rebound. When the teams switched ends of the floor, Ward posted up Bragg, spun off him for a layup and a foul, and cut KU’s lead to four.
Bragg only spent one minute on the court in the second half, and Self said after the victory he probably should have went to Coleby even sooner.
“One thing about Dwight, he's not that tall, but he is strong and can hold his position,” said Self, echoing words he often has used while praising Lucas. “And I thought he did a really nice job of holding his position. And also, his ball-screen defense was super, probably as good as any big guy we had today.”
Exerting yourself while college basketball fans across the country are watching sure beats Coleby’s usual contributions.
“It was great to be in and actually help the team,” Coleby said, wearing a huge smile in the locker room. “All the celebration with the bench is cool and all, but actually being on the court and doing it, it’s way much better.”
After a moment in the postseason spotlight, Coleby said he could feel the crowd’s excitement growing with his hustle plays, which also fueled his teammates in a crucial stretch of the win.
“Yeah, everybody was hyped and jumping up and down,” Coleby said of the support he saw. “It lifted us up, so that was great.”
Lucas told Coleby and the rest of his KU teammates before the game they should be prepared for anything. Clearly Coleby listened.
“It obviously takes a pretty strong mental person to be able to do that,” Lucas said of Coleby’s approach, “and he showed us today he’s prepared for that. And that’s great to see moving forward.”
Added Coleby: “We just needed energy and I brought it.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Kansas center Landen Lucas didn’t realize it at the time, but when he and his young teammates experienced early exits from the NCAA Tournament as underclassmen, the disappointment doubled as a valuable lesson about what it takes to win in March.
Now a fifth-year senior, Lucas played for KU teams that lost to Stanford (2014) and Wichita State (2015) at the very stage of The Big Dance that his Jayhawks find themselves in now, the Round of 32.
Much wiser and accomplished at this stage of his college career, when Lucas reflects on those seasons that came up short of a Sweet 16 berth, he realizes, at the time, the Jayhawks fell into the trap of assuming March Madness success. He said ahead of KU’s Sunday meeting with Michigan State this year’s veterans know it’s better to approach every tournament game as the most important one.
“I think it was obviously an important game, but it wasn’t the most important game,” Lucas shared of the approach that bit KU during his freshman and sophomore seasons. “I think last year put so much on us to make sure that we got past this game (second round) that we did whatever it took. We were meeting as a team outside of the coaches telling us to, just to make sure we had scouting report down, and we’ll do that again this year.”
Now that KU’s veterans know what it’s like to get as far as the Elite Eight, which Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk all accomplished a year ago, Lucas said they understand there is no harm in expending all the energy they have to advance.
“We’re treating this like it’s a championship — like it’s our very last game,” Lucas said of No. 1 seed KU’s showdown with No. 9 Michigan State (20-14). “Because then, as we know last year, you get a couple days, you can regroup, reset a little bit and then go into the next weekend. So we’ve got to treat this like it’s our last game and go out there and really not look ahead at all.”
Two years removed from KU’s second-round loss to Wichita State, Mykhailiuk and Mason said they both have forgotten about that game by now. Mykhailiuk, though, sees some similarities that should help Kansas (29-4) know what to expect at BOK Center versus the Spartans.
“But that (Wichita State group) was a pretty tough team, like Michigan State,” the junior from Ukraine said. “They were a low seed but really good, and that’s the main point about them. They can beat anyone.”
The elder Jayhawks know now what they didn’t when they were younger. Those second-round losses, Lucas said, taught them your mental approach during the NCAA Tournament is as important as anything.
“It’s really what helped us out last year,” Lucas said of KU coming one win away from a Final Four in 2016. “It’s what’s gonna help us out again this year, because we learned from that. At the time there was really nothing against those teams, because those teams didn’t have very many people who had done it before. It was a lot of young guys or transfers or different things. We were all learning together, and that’s the benefit that the guys who have been here for that long period of time have, because we did learn from those experiences.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Tom Izzo’s intense sideline demeanor and the success that accompanies it this time of year has become synonymous with the NCAA Tournament.
The 22-year Michigan State head coach has navigated the Spartans to seven Final Four appearances and a national championship, so anyone who follows college basketball recognizes him and MSU as a distinct brand.
Before Kansas (29-4) attempts to send Izzo’s Spartans (20-14) home earlier than the young bunch from the Big Ten planned, several of the Jayhawks gave their impressions of the hall of fame coach and his history of March Madness victories (47-18 all-time).
“He’s a great coach,” said KU freshman Josh Jackson, who was heavily recruited by Izzo before he opted to play for Bill Self at Kansas. “He’s always gonna coach his guys to be tough. That’s why I think he’s always got a tough team year in and year out — and this year he does. And I feel like he really knows what he’s doing. He’s had a lot of guys come through his program, and I feel like just off of his coaching ability, any team that you give him he’s gonna find success and, you know, make the best of what he’s got.”
Jackson said he felt starstruck when he first met Izzo, as a young high school standout in the state of Michigan, around the age of 14. The legendary coach attended one of Jackson’s games.
“I’d been watching him for my whole life, basically,” Jackson shared.
A Portland, Ore., native, Kansas senior center Landen Lucas didn’t necessarily grow up in awe of Izzo. But the old school big man certainly enjoyed the tough style displayed by MSU’s many successful teams through the years. The idea of bruising in the paint versus the Spartans on Sunday night at BOK Center has Lucas fired up.
“It’s cool,” Lucas said. “I feel like it’s a school I would’ve enjoyed playing at, because of the way they play and their style. Their known for that kind of stuff — getting extra possessions.
“It’ll be fun for me to play against them. It usually is,” added Lucas, who also went up against Sparty in 2014 and 2015. “And I’m looking forward to it.”
A Cleveland prep who grew up in Big Ten country, KU forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, is fully aware of Izzo’s impressive résumé.
“He has a great program, great legacy behind him,” said Bragg, a KU sophomore who at one point was offered a scholarship to MSU. “He develops his players really good, just like Coach Self, as well.”
MSU big men are associated with toughness in the paint, and Bragg expects nothing different this March, even if, like Self, Izzo hasn’t had his traditional lineup. Freshman Miles Bridges plays much the same role as his friend Jackson does at KU, in a four-guard starting lineup.
“They’re pretty aggressive,” Bragg said, adding the Jayhawks expect the Spartans to give KU their best shot. “Nick Ward (6-foot-8 freshman forward), he’s playing great basketball right now, coming off a big game versus Miami. He’s gonna be a challenge down low, and we’ve got to just keep him off the glass.”
The name Izzo, Kansas freshman Mitch Lightfoot added, conjures up images of grit and offensive rebounding.
“Doing all the little things, working their butt off,” Lightfood responded when asked to characterize Izzo’s Spartans. “You think of Draymond Green, stuff like that, players like that. Really athletic players. You know, Miles (Bridges) is super-athletic. But overall, really hard-working teams.”
Tulsa, Okla. — For weeks, Kansas coach Bill Self has referenced his hope that the Jayhawks would play loose, worry-free basketball this March, as they try to land the program in the Final Four for the first time in five seasons.
Once KU built a 20-point lead in the first half Friday night against UC-Davis, the players got to spend the remainder of a 100-62 rout living in the moment and enjoying the stage. This time of year can quickly become a stressful time for players and coaches, so opening the NCAA Tournament with laughs and chemistry-bolstering endorphins seemed ideal.
Senior center Landen Lucas definitely takes his job seriously, and doing so led to a 13-point, 11-rebound double-double for the KU veteran versus the Aggies (23-13). The 6-foot-10 big got to feel like a kid again, too, posting up on the blocks and showing off post moves that led to high-percentage buckets in the paint.
“Yeah, it was fun,” a smiling Lucas said in the locker room. “I don’t get a whole lot of chances to do that, so it was nice to do a couple. And then also it’s good moving forward because it gives me a little confidence to go to that if needed or if I see an opportunity for it.”
No one in a KU uniform enjoyed any play more than often subdued junior Svi Mykhailiuk, who coaxed a near-impossible 3-pointer through the net in the second half. With the shot clock clicking toward zero and his defender all over him, Mykhailiuk took a step-back, fading prayer from behind the arc that looked like it had no chance of dropping. But it did, the KU lead ballooned to 34 with more than 11 minutes to play and Svi cheesed harder than he seemed capable of as his buddy Devonte’ Graham ran toward him, screaming over the wild, highlight-level heave and make.
You would have sworn the Jayhawks (29-4) were just celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on the floor based on the looks on their faces. Mykhailiuk, who scored 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, said having a good time in the midst of executing should benefit Kansas.
“We were just playing ball,” the junior from Ukraine said, “and just enjoying the game.”
Lucas said Mykhailiuk’s crazy 3 and a late-game drain from senior walk-on Tyler Self highlighted a happy-go-lucky night.
“It’s always fun when Tyler gets in,” Lucas said. “But, you know, it’s fun. You try to have fun with these games, especially once you have a comfortable lead, because we know as soon as it’s over this time, you’ve got to get serious again to move forward to the next one.”
Indeed, a more than formidable Michigan State team awaits the Jayhawks in the Round of 32 on Sunday at the BOK Center.
After contributing six points and five rebounds in the victory, backup forward Carlton Bragg Jr. emphasized the importance of opening the team’s tournament run on a mellow note.
“Coach said in the locker room, just go out there and have fun,” Bragg shared of the pre-game message. “Just play hard. This is fun to play in March. So just go out there and have fun. Just let it go.”
An enjoyable Friday night could make a Sunday battle a little easier on the legs and minds of the Jayhawks, as they try to get back to Kansas City, Mo., for the Sweet 16
Tulsa, Okla. — After missing his first Kansas basketball start of the season due to a suspension at the Big 12 tournament a week ago, star freshman Josh Jackson, whose off-the-court issues have led to outsiders scrutinizing both the guard and the program, Jackson told reporters Thursday he’s ready to put any distractions behind him.
According to his teammates who have been around the 6-foot-8 guard throughout KU’s eight-day break from actual games, Jackson shouldn’t have any problem bouncing back after disappointing himself, the Jayhawks and members of the fan base with his actions.
Jackson hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, but at practices since he served his one-game suspension, senior Landen Lucas said the freshman has proven to be assertive and vocal.
“Trying to be even more of a leader than he already was, and I think that was important for all of us to see, because we knew he felt bad after that last game and we were all disappointed by it,” Lucas said. “But he came out with a whole other level to him, and I’m just excited to see him carry it over into the games.”
The Detroit native and projected top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Jackson will get a chance to prove Lucas right in the NCAA Tournament, beginning Friday evening against UC-Davis (23-12).
Starting junior wing Svi Mykhailiuk expects a great response from Jackson in his postseason debut, and said Jackson will pick up right where he left off, prior to his suspension.
“Definitely, because he’s a great competitor,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a winner, and he always wants to play, he always wants to win. I think he’s gonna be really hungry in the game, and he’s gonna show his best.”
KU head coach Bill Self repeatedly has supported Jackson publicly, and did so again on the eve of KU’s tourney run, saying he had no concern about Jackson’s approach to the game moving forward.
“I think Josh is focused. I do,” Self said. “He's a tough-minded individual. I think he's focused. And certainly his role or playing time or whatnot, whatever will only be dictated by what happens between the lines. It won't be dictated by anything else. And I think he's ready to go.”
KU’s senior leader and point guard, Frank Mason III said Jackson has handled lingering off-the-court issues and various allegations well.
“Josh is a great kid. We all love him. We all know he has great experience and things like that,” Mason said. “So we just tell him to focus on the things that he can take care of and that's exactly what he does. And we're just proud of how far he came so far throughout his year, and we're just focused on today and we're not really worried about anything off the court.”
Obviously, Kansas missed Jackson’s athleticism, defense, passing, scoring and rebounding in its Big 12 tournament loss to TCU. Lucas emphasized the importance of the freshman’s presence as the Jayhawks begin what they hope will be a lengthy journey through March Madness.
“We were confident in our team in the game that he missed that we should’ve won, but he just adds so much to this team,” Lucas said, “especially with the four-guard lineup that we like to go with so much. His presence is definitely important to us. He brings a lot of energy during runs and spurts that we really need. He’s a top three, five pick in the NBA, so it’s always nice to have somebody like that on your team.”