No one’s picking Kansas as a lock Final Four team entering the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but the Jayhawks themselves still believe a memorable March is possible.
Despite a couple of rough stretches, during which the Jayhawks lost three in a row and six of 10 from Jan. 2 to Feb. 6, Kansas is banking on the fact that it started and ended the season playing some of its best basketball.
KU’s defensive improvement throughout February played a big role in that and helped give Bill Self’s squad the identity that it had been missing.
What becomes of the Jayhawks’ postseason fate this month remains to be seen, but here are four reasons Kansas fans should be optimistic about their team’s chances.
It took these Jayhawks longer than most to figure out what Self demands from his teams on defense. But when they did, that understanding not only saved their season but also gave Kansas a clear identity.
Since then, KU has been one of the best defensive teams in the country, climbing all the way up to No. 7 in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings, holding opponents well under 1 point per possession and keeping foes’ scores in the 50s and 60s.
Self has said that this team needs to embrace playing games in the 60s, and, since the start of February, the Jayhawks have done just that. KU adjusted its ball-screen defense — at the point of attack and in rotations behind it — to protect the lane and play to its strengths, and senior leader Marcus Garrett and redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris take pride in pestering opposing guards to the point of mistakes that benefit the Jayhawks, both in preventing points and scoring in transition.
An eight-loss season is not what Kansas fans are accustomed to seeing from their team, but Self has repeatedly pointed out throughout the season that none of KU’s losses was anything to be ashamed about. All of them came at the hands of teams ranked in KenPom’s top 40, and all of those teams spent significant time in the Associated Press Top 25 poll throughout the season, as well.
Add to that the fact that just one team (Kentucky) played more Quadrant 1 regular-season games than Kansas, and the Wildcats were 3-12 in those games, while KU went 6-8. Beyond that, the Jayhawks were 12-0 against teams in Quadrants 2, 3 and 4, and they finished the regular season ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, No. 15 in the NET rankings and No. 22 in the KenPom.com rankings.
KU’s stat sheet is full of solid numbers, but the three most important areas to watch are defensive field goal percentage, offensive rebounding rate and 3-point percentage. If KU consistently fares well in those three areas this month, a run could be in the works.
Let’s not forget that four Kansas veterans — Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun and David McCormack — were among the top seven players on last season’s team, which was poised to enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the betting favorite to win it all. Sure, they played different roles a year ago than they’re playing today. And yes, that team was led by two All-Americans — Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
But Agbaji, Braun, Garrett and McCormack still played a huge part in Kansas’ 28-3 season in 2019-20, and they each started or played 20 or more minutes in the Jayhawks’ most recent NCAA Tournament game. Kansas’ veterans have played in a bunch of big games, and their confidence is at a season high entering this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Outside of Gonzaga and Baylor, the top three or four seed lines in this year’s bracket include a bunch of talented teams that can beat nearly anybody on any given night, but also can lose to just about anybody. Iowa lost twice to Indiana.
Ohio State lost to Northwestern. Illinois lost to Missouri. Villanova dropped games to Providence and St. John’s. Alabama lost to Western Kentucky. Houston’s three losses are to Tulsa, East Carolina and Wichita State. The list goes on and on.
Even though the Jayhawks do not have any bad losses on their resume, their season did include a handful of close calls and forgettable moments, most notably the recent home win over UTEP and double-digit losses to Texas and Tennessee earlier in the season. However, the RPI ranked the Big 12 Conference as the toughest conference in the country this season in both overall winning percentage and strength of schedule.
There are not many teams out there that could have finished second behind Baylor, but Kansas did. That, along with the Jayhawks’ solid stretches in some of their losses, should have this team believing it has as good a chance as anybody out there.