It’s been nearly a week since the 21 Kansas men’s basketball team was knocked out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament and the Elite Eight is now set.
With two double-digit seeds still remaining and eight coaches who have never won a national title, the next three rounds figure to be as wild and crazy as the first three.
We were this close to seeing Oral Roberts make history as the first 15 seed to ever reach the Elite Eight. And, somehow, it’s three Pac-12 schools — not Big 12 or Big Ten — that make up nearly 50% of the schools still in the hunt for this year’s national title.
I know plenty of Kansas fans have already written off this year’s tournament and will not be interested in watching the rest unfold. But for those of you who are still paying attention, here’s a quick look at the Kansas connections — direct or deep reaches — to all eight of the teams still playing.
The first two tickets to next weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis will be handed out on Monday night, with the two other teams joining them on Tuesday.
1 - Gonzaga – The obvious tie is that the Zags beat the Jayhawks in the 2020-21 season opener, 102-90, to kickstart their quest for a perfect season. But let’s not forget that former KU walk-on Evan Manning, the son of KU legend Danny Manning, is on Mark Few’s staff and will be looking to do what he couldn’t while at Kansas by reaching the Final Four with the Zags.
6 - USC – You all know what happened, so we won’t restate the obvious. Quick question, though: Did seeing what the Mobley Brothers did to Oregon on Sunday night make last Monday’s KU loss in Indy any easier for you to swallow?
1 - Michigan – You’ve got to go to a couple of six degrees of separation type of connections for this one, but they’re there. First off, Michigan, you may remember, is the program that current KU starter Jalen Wilson initially committed to and almost picked again after reopening his recruitment following the departure of former Michigan coach John Beilein. Current Wolverines coach Juwan Howard recruited Wilson hard but he wound up choosing Kansas after viewing the situation as an opportunity at a do-over. Beyond that, Michigan’s roster includes former Wake Forest wing, Chaundee Brown, who KU temporarily recruited before then-Wake coach Danny Manning convinced him to join the Demon Deacons.
11 - UCLA – KU was supposed to play the Bruins in the Wooden Classic this season but wound up playing Gonzaga in Fort Myers, Fla., instead. Beyond that, there’s the obvious tie of KU recently passing UCLA for most consecutive regular season conference titles AND most consecutive weeks ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
1 - Baylor – KU was one of just two teams to beat Baylor this season and the connections between these two Big 12 brothers are obvious. It’s hard to know exactly how the entire KU roster feels about it, but it seems likely that at least a couple of current Jayhawks are pulling for the Bears to win it all, even if for no other reason than to say they beat the champs. Gonzaga’s clearly the team to beat and Baylor has its hands full with the Razorbacks, but if they can get to next Monday night, they’ve got enough offense and defense to give the Zags a run for their money.
3 - Arkansas – This one goes back to former KU player turned coach Rex Walters, who spent a season (2018-19) working for Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman when Muss was at Nevada. The opportunity came right after Walters’ stint as an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons and right before he hooked up with Manning at Wake Forest. And Walters will be happy to tell you at any time how much respect, admiration and appreciation he has for Musselman. Here’s another deep connection: Arkansas assistant coach David Patrick played for the Syracuse team that knocked off KU in the Elite Eight in 1996 in Denver en route to a spot in the national championship game.
12 - Oregon State – There’s not a whole lot here, which makes sense when you consider the distance between Lawrence and Corvallis, Ore., and the distance between these two programs of late, a fact that has kept them from even bumping into each other on the recruiting trail. Remember, this Oregon State squad entered the 2020-21 season picked to finish dead last in the Pac-12 Conference and wasn’t even in the tournament until winning the Pac-12 tourney. Having said that, I found one connection via a bit of a reach. Oregon State sophomore Rodrigue Andela hails from Cameroon, the same country that produced former KU big man and current NBA mad man Joel Embiid. No word on whether Andela has told any tales of killing a lion with his bare hands, but the hometown connection is there. Embiid is five years older than Andela, but both list Yaounde, Cameroon as their hometowns.
2 - Houston – Quentin Grimes, of course. But it goes deeper than that. Before we get there, though, it’s worth pointing out that the Grimes that has played at Houston these past two seasons — which has been spectacular — likely would never have shown up in Lawrence. It was clear in his first year at KU that the fit just wasn’t there. So give the kid a ton of credit for staying confident, finding a place that did fit and making the most of his opportunity. Beyond that, every time they show Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who coached at Oklahoma for 12 seasons, KU fans no doubt flash back to the Senior Night when a junior Jayhawk named Paul Pierce went off in what turned out to be his last game at Allen Fieldhouse, inspiring Sampson to step onto the floor and smack him on the backside after Pierce drilled another jumper.
Monday night schedule:
• 6:15 p.m. - (12) Oregon State vs. (2) Houston, CBS
• 8:57 p.m. - (3) Arkansas vs. (1) Baylor, CBS
Tuesday night schedule:
• 6:15 p.m. - (6) USC vs. (1) Gonzaga, TBS
• 8:57 p.m. - (11) UCLA vs. (1) Michigan, TBS
*all times central
The Kansas men’s basketball program recently conducted a Zoom call with Bobby Pettiford, a 6-foot, 170-pound point guard from Creedmoor, N.C., who recently de-committed from the University of Louisville after a coaching change.
Pettiford, who is ranked No. 115 in the 2021 recruiting class by Rivals.com and in the Top 100 by ESPN (95), 247 Sports (88) and SI.com (82), has heard from a couple dozen schools since he announced his change of plans. But he recently told Eric Bossi of 247 Sports that his second round of recruiting had unfolded “at a good pace” so far.
While his de-commitment has reopened his options from coast to coast, Pettiford has paid close attention to the roster make-up at each program recruiting him and is keeping an eye on any changes that could impact his decision.
“A lot of teams are going through their player meetings and their team meetings,” Pettiford told Bossi. “Some of them are in the (NCAA) Tournament.”
He said he KU was a program he would be “highly considering” because of the Jayhawks’ need for a point guard. But he also said he was “not hurrying it.”
He told Bossi that his decision would come “sometime in April probably,” and that he would continue to track the changes at the various schools showing interest in him in order to make a solid decision.
Known primarily as an explosive athlete who plays best around the rim, Pettiford showed off his improved shooting touch during his senior season, hitting 53% from the floor, 39% from 3-point range and 80% at the free throw line.
Tyson Walker picks Michigan State
Tyson Walker, a sophomore from Northeastern who averaged 18.8 points and 4.8 assists per game this season in the Colonial Athletic Association, announced his commitment to Michigan State on Saturday afternoon.
The 6-foot point guard from New York, picked the Spartans over Kansas, Maryland, Texas, Vanderbilt and Miami (Fla.).
Braun’s brother looking for new spot
Parker Braun, the 6-foot-8, 217-pound older brother of Kansas sophomore Christian Braun, has entered the transfer portal and is looking for a new place to continue his college career.
The elder Braun averaged 2.8 points and 1.5 rebounds in 9.3 minutes per game for the Tigers this season. He appeared in 20 of MU’s 25 games and did not play in Mizzou’s NCAA Tournament loss to Oklahoma.
Groves brothers also on the move
A couple of weeks ago, the decision to enter the transfer portal by Eastern Washington standouts Tanner and Jacob Groves would not have registered on the radar of Kansas fans.
However, the two brothers hit the Jayhawks’ for 58 combined points on 9-of-16 shooting from 3-point range in KU’s first-round NCAA Tournament win in Indianapolis last week, making both household names with most KU fans.
Both Groves brothers — Tanner a senior and Jacob a sophomore — elected to move on shortly after their head coach Shantay Legans left EWU to take the job at Portland.
Still smarting from his team’s 85-51, season-ending loss to sixth-seeded USC on Monday night in Indianapolis, Kansas coach Bill Self talked about the Trojans the way dozens of past KU opponents had always talked about the Jayhawks.
Too big. Too long. Too athletic. Too talented.
It didn’t help that KU’s second-round NCAA Tournament loss at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse was the product of a perfect storm for a 34-point rout, with USC playing one of its best games of the season and Kansas one of its worst.
But even on the Jayhawks’ best night, with this Kansas roster, USC’s may have been too big — literally and figuratively — for Self’s team to overcome.
That fact was not lost on Self, who said he hurt for his players that on the biggest stage and in the most important game of the season they were never really in the game.
Another bad start by KU, in a season marked by them, cemented that. And USC became stronger, looser and more confident as the game progressed. The Jayhawks never appeared to lay down. But the Trojans never gave them a reason to think they could play on their level either.
Self, who is now 0-4 against Pac-12 teams in the NCAA Tournament during his time at Kansas — with two of those losses coming in the past four NCAA Tournaments — discussed that after Monday’s loss. And he did it in the context of what it would take for Kansas to get there again in the years to come.
“You can address it through recruiting. You can address it through player development,” he said. “For us to be a team that really has a chance to be a national contender, we need to get a little bit more athletic. We need to get a little longer and bigger, those sorts of things.”
At this point in the game, the player development part of that equation might be Self’s best bet for immediate improvement.
For one, the NCAA’s infractions case against Kansas remains unresolved. And Self has made it clear that the lingering cloud’s impact on the program has had a negative impact on recruiting in recent years.
For two, KU figures to return nearly everyone from this season’s roster and will be adding Class of 2021 signees K.J. Adams and Zach Clemence, two four-star prospects ranked in the Top 75 by Rivals.com who will bring a fair amount of athleticism and versatility to the 2021-22 squad.
Logan Community College big man Sydney Curry, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who stands 6-foot-8, 265 pounds, will help the Jayhawks bulk up, as well.
But given the fact that those players have already been lined up for the 2021 class and most of KU’s 13 scholarships already will be spoken for, KU’s efforts to enhance the program’s athleticism via a major overhaul may still be a recruiting class or two out.
You never know what can happen in an offseason at any college program.
Sometimes players decide to transfer out. Others decide to leave school early. And with the transfer portal becoming as popular as Blockbuster Video on a Friday night in the 1990s — and the expected passage of the one-time free transfer rule on the horizon — there could be more movement than ever this offseason.
Things have certainly been trending that way in recent years.
It’s still too early to know if either of those paths will affect KU’s roster in the coming months, but if Self stands pat with what he has and what he already has signed in the incoming class, there just is not a lot of room to add immediate help.
That’s why the player development part of KU’s future is so crucial.
It’s hard to imagine Monday’s 34-point massacre not being a factor in that. Anyone who played a role on this year’s team who returns next season likely will be motivated and driven by that final score and the awful feeling the Jayhawks had inside Hinkle Fieldhouse on Monday night.
So they’ll work to push past it and avoid that feeling again in the future. And what this group did in 2021 is any indication of its potential in the future, there’s plenty of reason to believe everyone who returns can and will get better heading into the 2021-22 season.
“I think our guys maximized their individual abilities pretty well," Self said. "But our margin of error was small. I think that there was less margin for error on this team probably than any team we’ve had since I’ve coached here."
Stay in touch with KUsports.com throughout the weeks ahead for a breakdown of KU’s returners as well as coverage of KU’s efforts on the recruiting trail.
Indianapolis — The reality of what was coming showed on Kansas senior Marcus Garrett’s face throughout Monday’s 85-51 loss to sixth-seeded USC at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
A flinch here. A grimace there, both admissions of frustration without the utterance of a single word.
But as long as there was still time on the clock, there also was still work to be done, so Garrett never let the sadness hit him.
When it did, at the end of the kind of NCAA Tournament loss not often experienced this early by teams seeded this high, the emotions overwhelmed him.
First, on the Kansas bench after he had checked out for what could be the final time in his KU career.
With his face resting in his hands, Garrett leaned forward in his chair and tried to collect himself while being consoled by KU assistant Jerrance Howard.
Later, after the teams shook hands when the game went final — one ecstatic to be moving on and the other preferring to be anywhere else — Garrett hustled his way to the KU locker room, wrapping his head and face in a towel along the way.
It remains to be seen what Garrett’s future holds. He went through Senior Night festivities back in late February and may deem that he’s ready to take a stab at a professional career, be it in the NBA or overseas.
But he also has the option of coming back to Kansas for one more run, thanks to the COVID-19 waiver that the NCAA provided all athletes who competed during the 2020-21 season.
These types of decisions are never made in the emotional moments that follow such heartbreak and disappointment. And Garrett said before Senior Night that he would talk with his family and Self after the season about what comes next.
But it sure sounded on Monday night like Garrett at least is leaning toward leaving.
“I mean, with this team next year, they’ve got a chance to do something special,” Garrett said after Monday’s loss. “Every year I feel like a Kansas team with Coach Self has a chance to do something special.”
Although he has been very open about how much he would enjoy coaching Garrett for another year, Self is not naïve and he, too, seemed well aware that Monday could have been the end of the line for the coach and player who forever will be linked as defensive-minded basketball men.
“If this is his last game — I know he's got a decision to make — I'm really proud to have been his coach,” Self said Monday night. “Jayhawk fans should be very proud of him, as well.” Because Garrett never has shied away from any moment — on or off the court — he sat there after what had to be the hardest loss of his life and answered questions about what went wrong against USC.
There were questions about the Trojans’ length, inquiries about why Kansas couldn’t make a shot and even a question about what junior guard Tyon Grant-Foster gave the Jayhawks on a night when the seldom-used reserve scored seven points in nine minutes, none of which came with the outcome in doubt.
Garrett answered them all — even the question about Tyon — demonstrating that, even in one of the most agonizing moments of his career, he was able to focus on what needed to be done and deliver.
That’s part of what always made Garrett one of Self’s favorite players. But only part of it. “I totally appreciate his abilities, what he gets out of himself each and every day,” Self explained.
Garrett, meanwhile — short and sweet, as always — summed up KU’s season-ending loss in eight simple words.
“I just feel like we fell short today,” Garrett said.
And then he elaborated, adding, “We kind of picked the wrong day to not make any shots, and the other team was making everything that they shot. We could never get the game back from them. They kept hitting shots and doing everything they wanted to offensively.”
As has been common throughout their time together, Self conveyed similar thoughts about Monday’s loss.
“Kansas deserves better,” he said. “Certainly, we didn't perform.”
After the loss, however, all of that — the missed shots, the overmatched defense, the sloppy fouls and sluggish start — seemed less important than the bigger picture of the connection between Garrett and Self.
“He gave me the opportunity,” Garrett said, with a hint of the emotion that had overcome him earlier sneaking back into his voice. “He changed my life. I’m actually going to be the first person in my family to graduate in May. I really appreciate what him and the coaching staff have done for me and my family over these past four years.
“The way he taught me how to be a man, really. Coming from where I come from, you really don't know a lot about being a man, things outside of basketball. But Coach Self taught me everything.”
Now it’s time to find out if there are any more lessons in their future together or if the student has passed all of his classes and is ready for the next chapter.
Indianapolis — Few venues in sports, let alone in college basketball, can match the history and feel of KU’s Allen Fieldhouse.
Hinkle Fieldhouse is one of them.
Built in 1928 thanks to the generosity of 41 businessmen, the arena, originally known as Butler Fieldhouse, opened with a seating capacity of 15,000, which, at the time, made it the largest basketball arena in the United State for 20 years.
It made sense that the venue opened with that type of distinction because, for the next several decades, it was the setting for some incredible moments in basketball and beyond.
Presidents have spoken and campaigned there. Olympians and legends have competed there. And the state's passionate basketball fans have helped ensure, through donations and renovations, that the arena affectionately known across the Hoosier State as "Indiana's Basketball Cathedral," has been preserved properly and stood the test of time.
Perhaps best known for its role in the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers,” Hinkle has long been home to the Indiana high school state basketball tournament, which was portrayed to perfection in the film.
In the 1986 film, fictional Hickory High, an undersized, overmatched small-town Cinderella story, defeats South Bend Central in the state title game.
Before the game, in order to calm his players’ nerves and get them to believe they can win, Hickory coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, has his players measure the height of the rim and the distance from the basket to the free throw line before their first practice in the building.
“I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory,” the coach tells his team after registering measurements of 10 feet of the ground and 15 feet to the free throw line.
The movie was loosely based on the story of tiny Milan High’s upset win of Muncie Central in the 1954 Indiana state title game. That game was played inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, himself a former high school hoops star in Oklahoma, said Sunday that the opportunity to coach in the building and experience its mystique firsthand was something he hoped would happen the minute he heard the 2021 NCAA Tournament would be played at six different venues in and around Indianapolis.
“That was one of the things that I said all along, ‘I hope we get a chance to play in Hinkle,’” Self recalled. “I haven't been there. Been a fan of it since the movie came out. And we play in a field house that’s very similar to Hinkle. You can see the sunshine coming through (the windows) on the court and stuff like that.”
KU’s coach, a self-anointed “big history guy when it comes to our sport,” said it was Hinkle’s history that made it one of the two college hoops venues in which he has always hoped his team could play. The other is The Palestra at Penn in Philadelphia.
While crossing one of the two off of his bucket list on Monday will be a delight, Self said he did not anticipate having much time to soak it up, given the fact that his 3rd-seeded Jayhawks (21-8) will have their hands full with trying to get by No. 6 seed USC (23-7) and into the Sweet 16.
“I'll look around the inside of the building,” Self said. “But I won't walk around. I don’t even know if they’d let us even walk around. But I'll certainly study it. I'll probably study it and compare it to Allen, how old the building is and the feel and that kind of stuff.”
This year marks just the second time Butler’s home arena has hosted an NCAA Tournament game. In 1940, Hinkle Field-house served as the host of the East regional, which featured Indiana, Duquesne, Western Kentucky and Springfield com-peting for the right to go to the finals in Kansas City, Mo.
Indianapolis — In Round 1 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon, third-seeded Kansas faced a team that liked to score and had to climb into the 90s to get the victory.
The last time KU crossed the 90-point threshold came six weeks ago, when KU blitzed Iowa State 97-64 at the outset of a five-game winning streak that sparked a late-season run of nine wins in 10 games, counting Saturday’s 93-84 Round 1 win over Eastern Washington.
In the days between the two 90-point outbursts, the Kansas offense averaged 67 points per game and held its opponents to a paltry 58.4 points per game.
Eastern Washington scored 26 points more than that on Saturday — that’s darn near like giving a team an extra half’s worth of offense given the way the KU D had played of late — and the Jayhawks didn’t blink.
Beggars can’t be choosers in March, though. And even if your team would prefer to play its games in the 60s, as Bill Self’s Jayhawks would this season, sometimes Cinderella or Uncle Mo have other plans.
If you can’t adapt, you won’t last. The Jayhawks can. And they proved it on Saturday.
Nobody’s going to call Kansas the team to beat after knocking off a No. 14 seed. Nor should they. But it’s more the way the Jayhawks won than it is who they beat that made Saturday’s win stand out.
And now the Jayhawks move forward knowing they can win while playing a number of different styles.
Look no further than Texas’ first-round loss to Abilene Christian on Saturday night for proof of the importance of being able to play different styles.
The Longhorns, who had the nation’s 28th best offense according to KenPom.com’s efficiency rankings, got caught up in a defensive battle with ACU and lost 53-52.
Abilene Christian’s defensive efficiency rank according to KenPom? Twenty-fourth. The Wildcats played their game and won.
Here’s a look at a handful of the different ways Kansas has won this season:
• Crushing a team from start to finish while clicking on all cylinders? Check.
• Suffocating teams with nasty defense and needing to score in the low-60s to win? Check.
• Coming back from 15 down in the second half against a team you’re heavily favored to beat? Check.
• Playing a great first half, falling apart in the second and still finding a way to close down the stretch? Check.
• Scoring 90+ in an NCAA Tournament game in which you trailed by 10 in the second half? Check.
“Hopefully this will give us some confidence, offensively, but also be a reality check,” Self said after Saturday’s victory. “We have to start grinding on the defensive end.”
No one would be caught off guard by Self emphasizing the importance of defense. But his theory about the two ends of the floor co-existing in a productive manner in March goes back to real world data that one of his past teams experienced.
“We played Carolina in the NCAA Tournament and it’s like 48-48 halftime or something,” began Self, recalling an Elite Eight game in 2012 that was tied 47-all at the half. “And our guys were so confident at halftime because they knew that wasn't us. That's not how we play. We played their game and we still were tied. So now, if we play our game, we'd be in good shape.”
The Jayhawks most certainly were. After giving up nearly 50 in the first half of that one, the Kansas D clamped down and held the Tar Heels to 20 points in the second half en route to an 80-67 victory that sent them to the Final Four.
“I'm hoping we kind of feel this way now,” Self added Saturday. “I'm happy we scored some points, but that's not real. What's real is we’ve got to defend and we’ve got to rebound. If we do those things, we can play with folks.”
Kansas gave up 46 points to Eastern Washington on Saturday and then held the Eagles to 22 through the first 15 minutes of the second half while reclaiming control of the game heading into the final five minutes.
The Jayhawks (21-8) won by a comfortable margin despite allowing 50% shooting from the floor, 38% shooting from 3-point range and 89% shooting (16 of 18) at the free throw line.
“If you’d have given me those numbers before the game, I’d have said we won,” Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans said after the loss before his face gave way to an involuntary half-laugh, half-smile of astonishment.
They didn’t. Kansas did. Because the Jayhawks showed they can play more than one style while finding moments to rely on what they do best.
“I definitely feel like we’re a tough team,” KU’s Marcus Garrett said after the game. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year. Every time adversity hits us, I feel like we’re able to bounce back. That’s something that we showed today with the rough first half. We were able to bounce back in the second half and come out with a win.”
Sights and sounds of this March Madness are different, but the stellar stories, and then some, are there all the same
Indianapolis — Four Missouri fans sat in a mostly empty Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, drinking beers and cheering on an Eastern Washington team they probably had not even heard of until the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket was released last weekend.
Under normal circumstances, the four die-hard Tigers, decked out in black and gold attire, no doubt would have rooted for Eastern Washington to pull off the upset — which it did not — of their long-hated Kansas rival.
But there is nothing normal about the circumstances under which this NCAA Tournament is being played, and that fact made it possible for the four anti-Kansas crusaders to be in the building, flapping their “wings” with the Eagles fans as EWU pushed Kansas to the brink.
Among the one-liners the group shouted that filled their section and may have been heard around the gym was their shot at KU sophomore Christian Braun, whose brother, Parker, plays for Mizzou.
“Parker’s the better brother,” they yelled between somewhat cliché barbs about the FBI, paying players and the like.
It was all in good fun, of course, and, after giving Eastern Washington a standing round of applause that many Kansas fans joined in on after the final horn sounded, the foursome filed out of the building, presumably to prepare for their own game later that night, across town against Oklahoma.
The ninth-seeded Tigers lost that one, ending their season, while their former Big 12 brothers moved to 6-0 in the first round of this year’s tournament.
As they left, I couldn’t help but wonder if they enjoyed rooting for EWU more than they would their own team a few hours later. Given the outcome, it seems likely.
But the mere fact that they were four of the 961 bodies — you read that number right — inside the Coliseum watching a first-round NCAA Tournament game featuring Kansas blew my mind.
And if not for this year’s event taking place almost entirely in the same city, it never would have happened.
Again, under normal circumstances, that group likely would have been in Detroit or Dallas or Raleigh with the Tigers while Kansas and its legion of fans would’ve invaded Wichita again.
But therein lies the beauty of what’s taking place this month in Indianapolis. Instead of fans from seven or eight teams visiting eight different cities across the country, they’re all right here in Indy.
There’s not nearly as many of them, of course. And the scene is nowhere near what it would normally be. But there’s something really cool about walking around and seeing a couple dozen different fan bases rocking their school colors within a five- or six-block area downtown.
Big and small, they’ve all shown up. I saw everything from Utah State and Cleveland State to Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Kansas and North Carolina.
There was Zags gear, Purdue duds, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Maryland red and dozens of others. And while the idea for all of the fans in attendance was to be the last team standing and root against all the others, there was a feeling of kinship that existed between all of them.
A friendly nod here, a good luck there and, perhaps the biggest and best of all, the prevailing vibe shared by all of them that subtly and without even trying screamed, “Way to go! We made it!”
Yes, watching your team make the Big Dance is a big deal. But the joy of just getting to enjoy March Madness in the first place trumped that this year.
It wasn’t just the fans who felt that way, though. Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team advanced to Round 2 with a 93-84 win over those four Tiger fans’ second favorite team for a day, expressed as much in his postgame press conference.
“I don't want to have to do this again,” Self said of waiting almost two full years between NCAA Tournament games, KU’s last coming on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City. “We've been so fortunate and blessed around here to be in a lot of tournaments in a row, and you should never take it for granted. It's a reward for your kids. So it couldn't happen soon enough, but I just hope like heck (a break like that) never happens again.”
It’s not just attendance oddities that have made this year’s trip to the Big Dance different from years past. The experience of simply being here is different, too.
For the players and coaches and team personnel, it means spending your non-court time on mostly the same floor in the same hotel with limited entertainment options. Video games, movies, team meals and meetings and a little bit of outside time fill most of the days.
There are no bands or cheerleaders either, and the familiar faces of those who typically fill the seats behind the Kansas bench each March — a group so well versed in the ups and downs of the madness that they know just when to stand, squeal and swear — are also missing.
For the media, it’s mostly the same set-up, though no one is monitoring where we do or don’t go. Where we aren’t is at the arenas.
I’d estimate that 80% of the non-sleeping time at NCAA Tournaments past has been spent at the arena at whatever site we’re visiting. On game day, you’re there long before and after tipoff and often spend time — when you’re done writing — watching the other games at the venue that day. On the off days, it’s open practices, locker room access, hospitality rooms and videos/radio hits in and around the arena.
None of that is available this time around. It definitely stinks. Some of the most fun and coolest stories we done all year come from the open access environment of the NCAA Tournament, when the locker rooms are open on game days and off days for periods of time and you’re able to dig deep with one-on-ones and off-the-beaten path interviews and inquiries with everyone on the roster, assistant coaches included.
Not having that is a small price to pay for having basketball back and seeing the madness march on. But it is missed. And it makes the whole thing feel, as Self said today, “different.”
Zoom calls and at least being able to watch the action live — though the number of people doing that at each game, understandably has been limited, as well — has created an atmosphere that feels close to normal and allows us to do what we do, but I can’t help but think how different it’s going to feel the further we get into this thing.
No interviews in overjoyed locker rooms with music bumping and signs of the coach’s water bath visible from floor to ceiling. Also, no eerie silence or devastated blank stares after heartbreaking losses either.
It really limits what we’re able to share with our readers and the stories we can tell. But, again, March Madness without it — at least temporarily — is still a heck of a lot better than no March Madness at all.
We’ve all experienced that. And it’s not much fun.
This is. And even though the interactions between the players and teams and the fans and the media has been drastically different, all of the great stories will still be told. And they’ll be born from what happens on the floor, between the lines, with the clock ticking down, where, at least for 40 minutes, everything feels pretty normal.
Eastern Washington big man Tanner Groves was one of those. And the only thing that kept him from becoming the hot name of the first round and a household name around the country overnight was the final score.
Groves understood that. But it didn’t wipe the smile from his face or eliminate the appreciation he felt for the opportunity to prove himself in front of the nation against a blue blood program.
The lumberjack-looking power forward from the northwest who finished with 35 points in the loss to Kansas was the talk of social media for a little while. People compared him to Bill Walton and Will Ferrell’s character in Semi-Pro.
He also received some praise from inside the gym in which he played his heart out, from those four Mizzou fans, in the form of a standing ovation from the Kansas fans and from Self, as well.
“He just said he had a lot of respect for my brother and I,” Groves said of Self’s in-person message to him on the court after Saturday’s game. “He said we had a heck of a game. It’s really cool to get some crazy recognition like that from one of the premiere coaches in the entire NCAA. “It’s really surreal that Coach Self came up to me and said he respected my performance today. I’m just thankful for the opportunities we got today.”
It’s those moments that remind you what March is all about.
The rest will return. And it will be glorious when it does.
But even without it, this year’s event is off to the kind of start we’ve always loved about this tournament, and there’s no doubt there’s more coming in the days ahead.
Rare is the season when Bill Self’s Kansas men’s basketball team is seeded lower than a 1 or a 2 in the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, it’s happened just six times now and, as Kansas fans everywhere know, Self’s KU teams have never been seeded lower than fourth.
The Jayhawks, who are a 3 seed this year, have been a 1 seed eight times under Self, a 2 seed three times, a 3 seed three times and a 4 seed three times, as well.
But just because this year’s Kansas team is a little more off the national-title-contender radar than most does not mean that Self is playing up the Cinderella angle entering this year’s tournament.
Taking that approach could be viewed as easy to do.
Not only are the Jayhawks (20-8) in a region with No. 1 overall seed and heavy title favorite Gonzaga (26-0), but there has been talk that the Jayhawks, as soon as the second round, if they get there, could be on the wrong side of the betting line in Las Vegas against No. 6 seed USC.
And then there's No. 2 seed Iowa, which has both better odds than Kansas to win it all and likely national player of the year Luka Garza.
“I don't know that we could spin it that we're an underdog,” Self said this week. “I don't know that that would be something that our opponents would think. We’re not at full strength, but we weren't at full strength when we played a really good Oklahoma team (in the Big 12 tournament) and played pretty darn well in that game, especially the first half.”
The confidence that this team gained from that performance, which came without starting big man David McCormack, has helped the Jayhawks prepare for this week with a positive mindset despite knowing that they will be without another starter, Jalen Wilson, and Tristan Enaruna, who are both back in Lawrence and also will have McCormack back but in limited capacity coming off of his COVID-19 quarantine.
KU’s late-season COVID issues certainly have added additional obstacles for the team to overcome. But Self believes there’s something positive that can come from it. And it’s the closest thing to the underdog card that you’ll probably ever hear the Kansas coach use.
“I think we have a chance maybe to do something that not as many people probably expect us to do just because of the hand that's been dealt us,” he said.
That’s both as a team and a potential deep run and as individuals who will be asked to step up as Enaruna, McCormack and Wilson work their way back.
“We have a great opportunity for guys to be even better than what maybe they've had an opportunity to be to this point because of personnel changes,” Self said. “So I'm excited about it.”
Whether that means freshman guard Bryce Thompson, a likely starter, enjoys a breakout tournament or role players like senior forward Mitch Lightfoot and redshirt freshman point guard Dajuan Harris emerge as key pieces, these Jayhawks will take whatever they can get.
Self has not been shy this week about thrusting seldom-used junior Tyon Grant-Foster into the spotlight, saying that the juco transfer could also be huge for the Jayhawks in the days ahead.
Whatever it means and however it ends up playing out, Self is not about to allow this team to fall back on the list of readily available excuses before things even get started. They’ve prepared with who they have. They’re confident in that group. And, after missing out on a chance to play at this point a year ago, those players and coaches who were a part of last season’s 28-3 team are ready to try to pick up where that group left off.
“We have a motto, faces change, expectations do not,” Self said. “And I think it's one of those deals (where) we still expect to play well and we still expect to have a chance to compete and advance. But we know our margin for error is probably as slim as it ever has been.”
After one last practice and final walk through on Friday, and watching a whole bunch of games on TV, the Jayhawks will take on 14th-seeded Eastern Washington at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday in Round 1.
At this time of year, advancing in the NCAA Tournament is often about matchups and who’s hot, both in terms of total teams and individual players.
The 12th-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team has won eight of nine entering the Big Dance and is also riding a couple of hot streaks by individual players.
But third-seeded Kansas (20-8) is not without its issues either.
With that in mind, let’s run down where KU’s roster currently stands, in order of who’s hot and who’s not for the Jayhawks heading into Saturday’s clash with No. 14 seed Eastern Washington in Indianapolis.
1 – Ochai Agbaji – The last time he played, Agbaji scored a career-high 26 points, including a stretch of 14 in a row, in a win over a ranked team. He’s been this team’s leading scorer all season and has proven to be comfortable carrying the load. He doesn’t have to force 20-point games in the tournament, but if he can find a few more of them, it’ll do wonders for KU’s chances.
2 – Marcus Garrett – No player has benefited more from KU’s commitment to defense down the stretch. For most of the season, Garrett tried to be everything at all times for this Kansas team. But since Feb. 1, he’s been able to return to what he truly is — a lockdown defender who can dominate games without scoring. That freedom has helped Garrett’s offense, too, making him primed for one final NCAA Tournament run.
3 – Dajuan Harris – Harris’ best basketball has come late in the season, as the redshirt freshman point guard has answered KU coach Bill Self’s calls to be more aggressive on offense so he can play more defense. Harris has played more minutes per game in KU’s 20 wins than in the eight losses, and his ability as a ball mover on offense and pest on defense bring a well-roundedness and X-factor feel to both ends of the floor.
4 – Mitch Lightfoot – Lightfoot was a monster against Oklahoma, posting up and scoring at will while bringing the same energy he typically does on defense. With Jalen Wilson out for a bit and David McCormack still working his way back, KU’s going to need Lightfoot to be both big and steady this postseason. Luckily for Kansas, he has played that role before, holding down the fort in the early rounds of the 2018 NCAA Tournament to help KU get by Penn and Seton Hall in Wichita.
5 – Christian Braun – The sophomore guard averaged just 7.6 points per game in KU’s final six contests, down five points from the six games before that. But it’s not just the point total that’s down. Braun has looked reluctant to shoot of late and has made just five 3-pointers in KU’s last seven games. If he can free up his mind and play with a little more intensity on the offensive end, he could provide Kansas with a significant lift. Remember, this is a guy who is capable of going off from 3-point range on any night, as he showed in an early win over Saint Joseph’s when he scored 30 and hit five 3-pointers.
6 – David McCormack – McCormack would be much higher on this list if we knew for certain what his status was entering the weekend. The expectation is that he’ll play, but will he be rusty and what about his conditioning? If neither of those is a factor, McCormack seems poised for a strong tournament.
7 – Bryce Thompson – The type of player who will do anything that’s asked and mix it up with a guy twice his size at any point. Coaches love players like that. And if Thompson can get his offensive game to catch up to his defense and desire to compete, he could emerge as the type of player who could take the Jayhawks to another level.
8 – Jalen Wilson – It’s hard to rank Wilson any higher since we don’t know when — or if — he’s going to play again this season. But he’s undoubtedly one of KU’s most important pieces when he’s out there, and has shown throughout the season — especially early — that he’s a true gamer. Getting him back at any point would be a huge lift for Kansas.
9 – Tyon Grant-Foster – Imagine not playing much throughout February and then hearing your Hall of Fame head coach say he’s going to give you a chance to become an impact player in the NCAA Tournament. That alone should give Grant-Foster the confidence he needs. Now he just needs to pick one or two things to lock in on and then do them really well while he’s out there. My suggestions: Defend and rebound.
10 – Tristan Enaruna – The sophomore wing from the Netherlands is in the same boat as McCormack in terms of rust and conditioning, but since he had fallen almost entirely out of the rotation prior to last week, Enaruna’s as much of a wildcard as there is on this roster. He has the potential to make a big impact. But first he’ll need an opportunity and then he’ll need to deliver for that to matter.
11 – Gethro Muscadin – Muscadin is listed ahead of his fellow freshman here because Self mentioned him as an option prior to the Big 12 tournament. He didn’t play, of course. And hasn’t seen much action this season. But he could contribute in a pinch, even if just as five fouls and a big body.
12 – Lattrell Jossell – He was wearing a boot late in the season and hasn’t played much anyway. He's not likely to be a factor on game days this month.
It’s been years since the perennial powerhouse Kansas men’s basketball program has played an NCAA Tournament game inside a 6,500-seat arena and even longer since it has played an NCAA Tournament game in front of fewer than 2,000 fans.
But the third-seeded Jayhawks will be able to check both of those feats off of their list again on Saturday, after they face 14th-seeded Eastern Washington inside Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.
Tipoff is set for 12:15 p.m. central time on TBS.
• SPECIAL SECTION: Check out our 2021 NCAA Tournament preview section
Located on the Indiana State Fairgrounds property and constructed for $1 million in 1939 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Farmers Coliseum is the current home of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Jaguars.
But there’s much more to this building than its current tie to its Horizon League tenant, as some of the biggest names in United States history once passed through the venue that has had a variety of names throughout the years, including Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, Pepsi Coliseum and Fairgrounds Coliseum.
John F. Kennedy once campaigned for President inside the building in 1960. And The Beatles, in 1964, made their only appearance in the state of Indiana inside the old school venue that locals say has a hint of the same flare and style that makes Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, just down the street, one of the better known venues in college hoops.
The Indiana Pacers called the building home during their American Basketball Association days from 1967-74, and the Indiana high school basketball state championship was held at the coliseum from 1943-45.
Farmers Coliseum closed in 2012 and reopened in 2014 after undergoing $63 million worth of renovations to modernize the facility.
Per the NCAA Tournament’s COVID-19 guidelines for the 2021 event, all venues hosting this year’s tournament in and around Indianapolis that will be used for March Madness will be allowed to have up to 25% capacity.
That allows for a crowd of roughly 1,650 fans for the Kansas-Eastern Washington game on Saturday.
A KU spokesman told the Journal-World that the school received an allotment of 350 tickets for the Jayhawks’ Round 1 game. All of them are going to player/staff family and/or donors.
It is not yet known what KU’s allotment will be for Round 2, if the Jayhawks advance, because of the potential to switch venues between rounds, the spokesman said.
Tickets for Saturday’s KU-EWU game also are available on the secondary market for anywhere between $133-$344 dollars.