LAWRENCE — As is so often the case for coaches of No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, Bill Self knew little about the Jayhawks’ first opponent, Penn, following the announcement of the first-round matchup.
He did, however, know enough about the Ivy League foe to deliver one message to his players.
“I told our guys, the thing about it is, from an academic standpoint, thank God we’re not competing against them in all those areas,” Self joked Sunday night.
The No. 9-ranked Jayhawks (27-7) earned the third overall seed in the tournament and are the top dogs in the Midwest Regional, meaning their potential path to a Final Four will go through nearby Wichita and Omaha, Neb. KU and 16th-seeded Penn (24-8) square off at 1 p.m. Thursday at Intrust Bank Arena.
“Certainly we’ll have great respect for them,” Self said, “but we’ll know more after we watch film the next couple of hours. ... We’ll be up here all night tonight working on that.”
If KU can defeat the Quakers — the Jayhawks opened as 15½-point favorites, and no one-seed has ever lost to a 16-seed — then a second-round matchup against either No. 8 seed Seton Hall (21-11) or No. 9 seed N.C. State (21-11) will await Self’s squad.
Other matchups in KU’s half of the Midwest Regional include Clemson (23-9) vs. New Mexico State (28-5) and No. 4 seed Auburn (25-7) vs. Charleston (26-7). On the other side of the region, TCU (21-11) will play the winner of a play-in game between Arizona State (20-11) and Syracuse (20-13), No. 3 seed Michigan State (29-4) will play Bucknell (25-9), Rhode Island (25-7) and Oklahoma (18-13) will square off and No. 2 seed Duke (26-7) will face Iona (20-13).
“Hard” was the word that came to mind when Self first glanced at the region, with the Midwest featuring three Champions Classic bluebloods in KU, Duke and Michigan State. All three of those teams were in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. With the Blue Devils and Spartans on the same side of the region, though, only one could be a potential opponent for the Jayhawks if they make the Elite Eight for a third straight season.
“I think if you’re fortunate enough to play in that game, the Elite Eight game, then you’re going to play against a great team regardless,” Self said. “But the eye test, it pops out pretty good when you have those two programs in the same region because I think, obviously, everybody thinks — and I actually agree with what everybody thinks — if Michigan State and Duke both play well, they would be two of the heaviest favorites to win the national championship.”
The advantage to playing close to home the first two weekends, Self said, is obvious — it’s an easier trek for fans looking to follow the team’s postseason run in person. The situation is not without its drawbacks, though, as the Jayhawks found out in last year’s season-ending defeat to Oregon in a game played at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“The disadvantage I guess is, if there is one, is the fact that sometimes you don’t get a chance to — you’ve got to win two weekends before you can get on a plane,” Self said. “Sometimes I think that’s something that’s very rewarding to the players is to go someplace they haven’t been and that kind of stuff.”
Still, the KU coach isn’t begrudging the close-to-home two-step to this year’s Final Four in San Antonio, the same city the Jayhawks won their last national championship 10 years ago. Self anticipated placement in the Midwest Region following Saturday’s fiery 81-70 victory over West Virginia in the finals of the Big 12 Tournament, a contest he classified as the team’s best showing this season.
“If you look at our body of work, we weren’t worth a flip in Stillwater (against Oklahoma State). We were much better against OSU in Kansas City. We weren’t worth a flip against K-State. And then we were really good against West Virginia. I think we played our best game,” Self said. “I think we should be on an uptick, but our body of work playing at that level certainly isn’t extended by any stretch, because I don’t think we played very well at all Friday (in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals).”
What encouraged Self so much about Saturday’s performance was the joy he saw his team display en route to the come-from-behind victory. It’s been an attribute he’s been seeking all season, and the Jayhawks save their best for last in that respect.
“I don’t think we’ve had a team that in recent memory has enjoyed playing the game more than those kids did last night,” Self said. “I think there’s been a lot of games where we’ve enjoyed playing the game, but I think last night was about as good as I’ve seen. And that’s been something, as you guys know, that’s been a pet peeve of mine all year long, because we haven’t shown that visibly when we’re out there playing.
“This team’s shown that we can play as a 1 seed or play as a 12 seed, or a team that doesn’t make the postseason tournament. We’ve shown that. Who knows what we’ll bring? But one thing I do think we’ll do much better at is if we’re enjoying playing rather than thinking we have to do something. We should not wish to get through a game. We should look forward to playing every minute of it.”
AZUBUIKE WORKS OUT — Starting center Udoka Azubuike’s status for the Jayhawks’ tournament opener remains in doubt, with the 7-foot sophomore recovering from an MCL sprain to his left knee suffered in practice last Tuesday. Azubuike sat out the entirety of KU’s conference tournament run but did a “very, very light” workout Sunday and participated in one-on-zero drills, making Self “very, very optimistic” the team will have him this weekend.
“It was not anything that would tell us that he’s going to practice (Monday) or anything like that,” Self said, “but his recovery that he’s made so far has been even more than what the doctors and the trainers originally thought it would be.”
As of now, Self hopes to get Azubuike some action in Thursday’s opener and, after an additional 48 hours of rest, a larger role in Saturday’s potential second-round contest. Whether Azubuike has to be 100 percent to be cleared is “up to the trainers and doctors.”
“I don’t know that he can be 100 percent,” Self said. “There’s a lot of guys that sprain an ankle and they’re not 100 percent, but obviously you still play because there’s no further risk of hurting it more. It’s just sore. So that would be a doctor’s call and a trainer’s call, certainly not mine.”