KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The first step off the bus was familiar. So was going through security, navigating the maze of tunnels, walking into the locker room and getting cozy in one of the wooden stalls.
Yes, everything about the Sprint Center is familiar to top-seeded Kansas.
After all, the Jayhawks are 6-0 in the building this season.
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“It’s kind of weird,” admitted freshman star Ben McLemore, “but you know, we’ve worked hard to come back here, and now we just have to go out there and perform.”
The Jayhawks (29-5) earned the top seed in the South Region and the right to play a 30-minute drive from their Lawrence campus by winning the regular-season Big 12 title, and running roughshod through the conference tournament last weekend at Kansas City’s downtown arena.
Along with those three wins, the Jayhawks have beaten Washington State, Saint Louis and Oregon State in the Sprint Center, giving it a distinctive home-away-from-from home feeling.
They’ll try to keep their success going against No. 16 seed Western Kentucky (20-15) when they meet Friday night in one of the last games of the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“It feels like the Big 12 tournament, to be honest,” Jayhawks center Jeff Withey said. “I think being so close to home will be a great advantage for us. We’re far enough away that we don’t have the distractions, but close enough that we’ll still have the support of our fans.”
Even the most pint-sized fans.
“There isn’t a whole lot that can distract us,” senior guard Travis Releford said, “other than little kids running up to us, asking for autographs. And that I look like as fun, part of Kansas basketball and being part of this tournament.”
As easily recognized as the Jayhawks are around town, the Hilltoppers are complete unknowns, so much so that Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper had a tough time getting through security.
He was held up for several minutes by overzealous Sprint Center staff. Officials from Western Kentucky eventually managed to convince the guards that, yes indeed, Harper was the coach.
“Hopefully they’ll let me in tomorrow night,” he said with a wry smile.
The Hilltoppers are no stranger to the NCAA tournament, of course, even if they are to Kansas City. They’re participating for the fourth time in the last six seasons after winning four games in four days to capture the Sun Belt tournament title.
They’ve also won at least once in each of their last three NCAA tournament appearances, rallying from 16 points down with 4:51 left to beat Mississippi Valley State in a “First Four” game last year, and then hanging tough with eventual champion Kentucky in an 81-66 defeat.
“We were in that game for a little bit,” recalled the Hilltoppers’ T.J. Price. “I’m feeling like we come into this game knowing we can beat Kansas, not just compete with them, or be happy we’re in the NCAA tournament.”
Kansas is in the tournament for the 24th consecutive year, second only to North Carolina for the longest streak, and is a No. 1 seed for the fifth time in the past seven tournaments.
The Jayhawks are also chasing a bit of history against Western Kentucky.
They can win their 30th game for the fourth straight season – something no other Division I school has done after Memphis was forced to vacate the entire 2008 season. The Jayhawks can also win their 2,100th game, second only to Kentucky (2,111) for most all-time.
“Now that the dust has settled, the match-ups are all here, hopefully now we can play like a team that’s been seeded No. 1 on the line,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
The Jayhawks are certainly one of the deepest, most veteran teams in the field, with four senior starters – three of them fifth-year guys – who were key components on the team that last year made a memorable run to the Final Four in New Orleans.
While they have the ability to rip off game-changing runs in a matter of minutes, it’s their defense that has become their hallmark – a suffocating, infuriating half-court pressure that can cause turnovers in bunches and turn even the hottest-shooting teams ice cold.
“Their defense really stands out. You can tell their defense gets them going a lot, if they’re struggling on the offense side,” Price said. “Their defense is really impressive.”
Their entire team is impressive, Price added, but that doesn’t mean Western Kentucky will be intimidated by the blue bloods from the Big 12. In fact, the Hilltoppers watched the end of No. 1 seed Gonzaga’s great escape against Southern on Thursday, and the near-upset emboldened them.
“I guess you could say that,” sophomore forward George Fant said. “We all want to be on this stage. We’re here now. We’re just going to play as good as possible and try to get a win.”