Jayhawks No. 1 in South
Published on -3/18/2013, 9:51 AM
By DAVE SKRETTA
LAWRENCE -- Elijah Johnson is the first to admit there have been far more talented teams to play at Kansas, even in the four years he's been part of the program.
Turns out it was still talented enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Big 12 champions received a spot on the top line for the fifth time in seven years Sunday, and will open play in the South Region against Sun Belt champion Western Kentucky at the Sprint Center in nearby Kansas City, Mo.
"You might hear this from Coach's mouth, but this isn't the most talented team we've had," said Johnson, a senior guard, who has been a part of three teams to earn No. 1 seeds.
"This is a more humble team, a more -- I don't really know the word to explain it, but yeah, I don't feel like those old teams," Johnson said. "I feel like we're not the most talented, so we're willing to go out there and work hard, and do whatever we need to do."
Despite losing Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson, along with several other important pieces from last year's national runners-up, the Jayhawks (29-5) still managed to win a share of their ninth straight regular-season Big 12 title, and then captured the tournament crown, too.
That run during the weekend, capped off by a victory over Kansas State on Saturday night, may have been what ultimately pushed the Jayhawks to the top line on the bracket.
"We didn't know what to expect," Johnson said, "but to hear someone call you as a 1 seed, it means you're one of the best-performing teams around."
The NCAA tournament selection committee claims it doesn't consider potential matchups when seeding the bracket, but it might at least have a sense of humor when it comes to the Jayhawks.
In the round of 32, Kansas could face former coach Roy Williams and eighth-seeded North Carolina, whom they beat in a regional final last year. The Tar Heels play Villanova on Friday.
Gazing into the round of 16, the Jayhawks could see fifth-seeded VCU, the same mid-major darling that knocked then-No. 1 seed Kansas out of the NCAA tournament two years ago. If the Rams beat Akron in their opener, they would advance to play the winner of Michigan-South Dakota State.
"They probably do have a sense of humor," said the Jayhawks' Jeff Withey. "But like I said, I don't even want to think about it, to be honest. I want to stay focused, because during this time of the season, even if you get off focus a little bit, it can be the last game you play."
Kansas should have an advantage by beginning the tournament at the Sprint Center, where it is 6-0 this season. The Jayhawks beat Washington State and Saint Louis in an early season tournament, and Oregon State during the regular season, before winning three times in the Big 12 tournament.
"It can go both ways," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said of playing close to home. "I think there can be some extra distractions. We have to work with our guys on that. But we get a chance to play in a building that we're very familiar with, and where we've had some success.
"I think the positives far outweigh the negatives."
Self had said he wouldn't plead with the selection committee for a No. 1 seed, mainly because he didn't think they'd listen, but also because he's had mixed success with it.
The top-seeded Jayhawks lost to UCLA in a regional final in 2007, and then won their fifth national title the following season by beating Memphis in overtime. But they were also ousted by No. 9 Northern Iowa in the 2010 tournament, played not far away in Oklahoma City.
"These guys play at a place where there are expectations all the time," Self said. "You lose two or three in a row and it's disaster. Who would have thought this team that lost three in a row in early February would be the No. 2 overall seed in March?"
The 16th-seeded Hilltoppers (20-15), led by sophomore guard T.J. Price, will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. They earned the automatic berth out of the Sun Belt by beating Florida International in their conference championship game.
Western Kentucky is 4-3 in the NCAA tournament since 2008.
"When I was at Illinois, we played Western Kentucky in the first round," Self said, recalling a 2003 matchup won by his fourth-seeded Illini. "I do have some experience with the school, and obviously they're capable of beating anyone."