The Kansas men’s basketball team was one of four programs to receive a No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, bringing the Jayhawks’ total to 15 1 seeds all-time and nine in 18 tournaments under head coach Bill Self.
It marks the first time since 2018 that Kansas (28-6) has been seeded on the top line, and the Jayhawks will open this year’s tournament run at 8:57 p.m. Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, on TruTV against the winner of Tuesday’s First Four game between No. 16 seeds Texas Southern and Texas A&M; Corpus Christi.
Kansas is 39-13 all-time as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and 14-0 all-time against No. 16 seeds.
While Self will be the first to tell you that seeds don’t matter anywhere near as much as how a team plays in the Big Dance, he did admit on Sunday that the program’s run of success leading up to the NCAA Tournament each year impressed even him.
“I listened to (Gonzaga coach Mark) Few the other day and he was talking about how proud he was of his program for getting a 1 seed for like the fifth time in seven years or whatnot, which he should be,” Self said following the release of this year’s bracket. “And then someone told me this would be our 10th in 16. That’s pretty good. That’s pretty strong. Although seeds don’t matter once you get them. You’ve got to go play. I’m happy that we can say that, but I’d be much happier playing well in the tournament.”
Self referenced the number 10 because all signs pointed to the Jayhawks having been the overall No. 1 seed in 2020 before the tournament was canceled at the outset of the pandemic.
Jumping back on the 1 line after a forgettable and historic second-round exit in Indianapolis a season ago has the Jayhawks poised for a deeper run this time around.
“Being a 1 seed comes with the good and the bad,” sophomore wing Jalen Wilson said Sunday. “Because now you’ve got everybody gunning for you. We’re used to getting everybody’s best shot anyways, but now it’s a big target on our back. We’ve just got to represent it well and show why we are a 1 seed.”
The strength of KU’s overall resume certainly had something to do with that. In addition to winning a share of the Big 12’s regular season title and the Big 12 tournament trophy, the Jayhawks finished the pre-NCAA Tournament portion of their season with 12 Quad 1 wins, the most in NCAA Division I.
No. 3 seed Tennessee had 11. Fellow-top-seeds Gonzaga and Baylor had 10 and the fourth No. 1 seed, Arizona, had six.
While those numbers were important for the committee and KU’s case for the 1 line, the Jayhawks themselves believe the entirety of their season has prepared them for the pressure that comes with being one of the favorites to reach a Final Four.
“I think we’ve had the games that we needed to show us what we’re going to have to go through in March Madness,” Wilson said Sunday. “1 seeds, 2 seeds, 3 seeds, it doesn’t matter in the tournament. It’s just whoever plays best that game.”
Self said he was happy with the draw the Jayhawks got, but more from the standpoint of being in the Midwest region and starting in Fort Worth, near a big alumni base like Dallas, than anything else.
“I never love our draw,” he said. “And I probably don’t this year either. But I don’t hate it. It’s going to be hard regardless.”
Like with any year, Self said his team would approach the NCAA Tournament like a series of two-game tournaments. He admitted that it’s human nature to look at the bracket as a whole and see who landed where and how roads and paths for other programs might have played out. But after that first glance, he won’t look at it again.
“I’m looking at three teams,” Self said. “The winner of the game Tuesday (between Texas Southern and Texas A&M; Corpus Christi) and (the 8-9 game between) San Diego State and Creighton. And then next week we’ll go on to another two-game tournament. That’s how I’ll look at it. You’re going to be playing somebody good no matter what.
“I’m not even going to get into how we matchup the second weekend until we take care of business the first weekend. And there’s still a lot of work to do before that occurs.”
While this year’s Kansas roster features several new faces, there are a handful of players who were a part of that 2019-20 team that appeared to be in position to make a real run at a national title. Guys like Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun and David McCormack were role players on that team, but they were there to experience it nonetheless. And it hurt them just as bad as it hurt that team’s stars like Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett, when the tournament was canceled.
Last year brought the tournament back but the Jayhawks were still in a bubble setting and COVID was still a big part of the experience. This year, Self said, feels more like a normal year and he’s looking forward to seeing what those guys, along with the newcomers, can do with it.
“I don’t think anybody on our team has experienced what the NCAA Tournament can potentially be like, even if they’ve participated in it,” Self said Sunday. “We haven’t really given it a great run in the tournament since ’18. In order to experience what it’s really like to play here, you need to do well in the tournament. I’m looking forward (to that) and hopeful that happens.”
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