“Oh, man, we’ve been watching,” Kansas senior Travis Releford allowed after his top-seeded Jayhawks escaped with a 64-57 win over 16th-seeded Western Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. “We were, the last game, I think (Friday), so of course we saw them all.
“And I think that was in our heads. And I’m sure the coaches probably won’t admit it, it was definitely in their heads, too. We’re human.”
The Jayhawks (30-5) didn’t just look human late Friday night. They looked listless, sloppy, and hopelessly out of whack. They trailed by three with 6:43 to go in the first half and by one at the break.
Kansas went oh-for-everything from beyond the arc (0-6), got outrebounded by a team with a 10-10 record in the Sun Belt by a margin of 41-35, and turned it over 17 times. They were outscored on second-chance points — a Bill Self trademark — by a count of 17-5.
Twenty-five minutes in, this much was clear: Perry Ellis (nine points in 12 minutes) came to play. And Ben McLemore (11 points in 32 minutes) came to watch Perry Ellis play.
Before what was basically a home court at Kansas City’s Sprint Center, the Jayhawks managed to do something really incredible: At an NCAA tourney tilt, take its own darned crowd completely out of the game.
The silence was deafening. At one point, with about 1:44 left in the contest and the Hilltoppers still somehow hanging in there by a pinkie, a Jayhawk fan could clearly be heard at floor level shouting:
“REALLY STRUGGLING WITH THE 16 SEED, KU!”
So, yeah — strange, strange game.
Although, in a perverse way, the perfect end to a strange, strange day at the Power & Light district, a site in which a 12-seed surprised (Mississippi), a 13-seed survived (La Salle), and a 16-seed took the air out of an entire building for two hours and change.
In its present format, a No. 1-seed has never lost to a 16 in the Big Dance. After sitting around and watching giant after giant fall on Friday, Kansas players started to wonder if they might be the first on the hit list. The more scrappy Western stuck around, the more the Jayhawks started having TCU flashbacks, up and down the bench.
“It felt like everybody was thinking about what you said and what Travis said,” point guard Naadir Tharpe admitted. “And that’s not how we should be playing.”
Other than the usual intimidation job (17 points, seven blocks) by center Jeff Withey, a man almost no mid-major has much of an answer for, gold stars were in short supply. The Jayhawks picked an interesting time — nothing will ever top that stinker against the Horned Frogs on the “OMG scale” — to string together their SECOND-worst game of the season.
“Not Kansas basketball,” offered Releford, who finished with 11 points. “We weren’t making them uncomfortable. We were letting them get whatever they wanted, pass the ball wherever they wanted to, and just let them get whatever they wanted.
“And early on, we gave them the confidence so that they could beat us. And any team can be beaten right now.”
“We just didn’t come out with any energy,” forward Kevin Young added. “And (in) the first half, they were the better team.”
By all accounts, the Jayhawks deserved to lose. And if they play like that in Sunday’s marquee throwdown with eighth-seeded North Carolina, they will.
Assuming KU’s plan was lulling Roy Williams into a false sense of security, then mission accomplished.
If not, well, oh, snap.
“But (with) a couple of us, this was our first NCAA Tournament,” Tharpe said. “So good thing we got it out of the way (in) our first game. So now we should just be able to be loose and just go out and play our regular game.”
As to what that “regular” game is, well — your guess is as good as ours. Based on the glum looks on the faces of Jayhawk fans filing out into the chilly night, Sunday smells like a mystery, too: KU versus UNC, Self versus Roy, old money versus old money. If the Jayhawks can’t get their heads straight for that one, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.