LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) The comparisons to the run Kansas made to last year’s Final Four have already begun.
The Jayhawks, then a No. 2 seed, were pushed hard by No. 15 seed Detroit in their first game, and then were on the ropes against Purdue the next round just to survive the opening weekend.
This time around, Kansas is the No. 1 seed and received a stiff challenge from No. 16 Western Kentucky on Friday night. The Jayhawks then dug a nine-point hole and needed a big second-half charge to knock off eighth-seeded North Carolina and advance to the regional semifinals.
“Is this any different from last year?” coach Bill Self asked.
Not so far.
And the Jayhawks hope it remains that way.
Kansas headed to the round of 16 last year and knocked off North Carolina State and the Tar Heels – yes, Roy Williams has been bounced two straight years by his former team – and then kept the good times rolling in New Orleans before losing to Kentucky in the title game.
This time around, the Jayhawks will face fourth-seeded Michigan on Friday night in Arlington, Texas, for the right to play in a regional final for the third straight season.
“They are, in my opinion, one of the best teams in the country, and I wouldn’t feel right if we actually won the whole thing without playing the best teams,” the Jayhawks’ Elijah Johnson said of the Wolverines. “We’ve got to play the best teams and I know Michigan is one of those teams.”
So are the Jayhawks, even if they haven’t always looked like it.
This is the same team, after all, that lost to lowly TCU midway through the Big 12 season, and at one point dropped three consecutive games. And even though it pulled away in the closing minutes to beat North Carolina 70-58 on Sunday, the Jayhawks still committed a season-high 22 turnovers.
Leading scorer Ben McLemore, widely considered an NBA lottery pick, was 0 for 9 from the field and missed all six of his 3-pointers, while Kansas got little offensive production from its bench besides three 3-pointers and a few free throws from Naadir Tharpe.
It’ll probably take a 40-minute effort from a full cast to beat the Wolverines.
“If we were to win the whole tournament, I wouldn’t feel right by saying, `Hey, we won,’ if we didn’t play the best teams,” Johnson said. “So, out of respect for my team and the program, I feel like we have to take this journey. They probably feel the same way. They’ve probably been watching us on TV and have mutual feelings. I want to play the best teams.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Jayhawks exude confidence.
They start four seniors, three of them fifth years, who were part of that run last season, and McLemore is a redshirt freshman who practiced with the team throughout the second semester.
They’ve been through the grind of an NCAA tournament odyssey, and they know what to expect.
So when the Tar Heels had them in a 30-21 hole at halftime, and the Jayhawks were shooting just 25 percent from the field, they turned to their cast of veterans to bail them out. The quartet of Johnson, Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Kevin Young came through once again.
Johnson settled down to dish out four assists, Young provided a valuable spark with his almost unparalleled energy, and Withey and Releford provided the scoring punch that had gone missing.
The 7-footer finished with 16 points and a career-best 16 rebounds, while also blocking five shots to move within seven of Tim Duncan’s career NCAA tournament record of 50. And Releford, who was playing in his hometown, added 22 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
“This is our last go-around,” Withey said, “and we’ll do anything to win.”
That meant tying a season high with 50 boards against the Tar Heels, and shooting a blistering 63 percent from the field in the second half, all while holding fast-paced and high-scoring North Carolina to 30 percent shooting and its second-lowest point total in its last 22 games.
“We basically told each other, `Is this how we want the season to end?'” Tharpe said. “We worked hard to get this far, and then to let it go like this wasn’t going to happen. We came together as a team, the seniors stepped up really big and gave us what we needed.”