The rug sits in the middle of the locker room, a small, rectangular blend of fabric that accompanies the Kansas basketball program on every road trip. The rug has an embroidered Jayhawk on it, and its history dates back to the late 1980s. Look at the tag, a KU manager explains, and you’ll see an inscription from 1988.
So, of course, the rug was here on Thursday at the CenturyLink Center, where the second-seeded Jayhawks prepared for their NCAA Tournament opener against No. 15 seed New Mexico State at 11:15 a.m. on Friday.
“I almost stepped on it one day and they said: ‘Don’t step on it, watch out, watch out,’ ” Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre said. “So I guess it’s just a legendary rug.”
Indeed. The rug sees all. It was there in 2008, when the Jayhawks won their first NCAA title in 20 years, and it was here in Omaha three years ago, when the program began another Final Four run with two victories. But truth be told, the rug has seen better days. And if we’re going off recent history, this tiny crop of carpet hasn’t been much luck at all.
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It didn’t help last year, for instance, when the Jayhawks scuffled through two NCAA Tournament games and bowed out to No. 10 seed Stanford in the round of 32. It didn’t help this year, when the Jayhawks racked up a 10-8 record away from Allen Fieldhouse.
“I don’t know,” Oubre said, when asked if the Jayhawks’ talisman may be losing its March powers. “I’m just a freshman.”
Whether Kansas’ recent NCAA Tournament struggles have anything to do with a piece of blended wool is, of course, immaterial. The Jayhawks just know that they didn’t live up to postseason expectations last season — and that must change this month.
“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” sophomore wing Brannen Greene said. “Because we’re so young, we didn’t know what to expect.”
This year, Greene says, the Jayhawks feel more comfortable in this March environment. The brighter lights. The big arenas. The media crowds. It all feels less jarring.
But as Kansas waits to begin its NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks find themselves in a peculiar situation. They are a No. 2 seed that enters the NCAA Tournament with a 26-8 record and another Big 12 title to their name — but good luck finding anyone that expects Kansas to be in Indianapolis at the Final Four in April. Kansas, somehow, has become the most omnipresent of March clichés: A quasi-underdog.
“I wouldn’t think that we’re anyone’s favorite pick to do a lot of things,” coach Bill Self said.
As Greene and his teammates watched various NCAA Tournament preview shows this week, they noticed nobody was talking much about Kansas. They noticed that a large number of commentators were picking Kansas to fall to Wichita State in the round of 32. And a few — gasp — were even touting a long and athletic New Mexico State squad as a trendy upset pick.
“They’re not even picking us to get past the first round,” Greene said. “We take that as motivation.”
There are legitimate reasons, of course, to be wary of Kansas. Forward Perry Ellis is working his way back to full health after spraining his knee in early March. The Jayhawks will also be without freshman forward Cliff Alexander, who didn’t make the trip while an NCAA investigation into his amateur status continues.
“We know that there may be some people out there that think this team isn’t capable of doing special things,” Self said. “But deep in our heart, we know we are if we play well.”
On Thursday, some of those doubters naturally resided in the New Mexico State locker room, where the Aggies exuded a swagger usually reserved for a team with a higher seed to its name. New Mexico State, 23-10, won the WAC by five games and is in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year. The Aggies, in other words, did not expect to be here, playing as a No. 15 seed.
“When we first saw Kansas, we were kind of shocked,” said Tanveer Bhullar, a 7-3 reserve center. “But when we started watching film, they look like a real beatable team.”
History, of course, sides with Kansas. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 15 seeds are just 7-113 against No. 2 seeds.
“That’s an interesting stat,” New Mexico State guard Matt Taylor said. “Well, I guess we’re about to be No. 8.”
One hour later, back inside the Kansas locker room, Greene smiled when he was relayed the comments from New Mexico State.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Greene said. “I’m not going to talk any trash or anything like that. But nice comment.”
On Thursday, Self said the goal the next couple of days was to eliminate distractions and focus on what his team can control. Last year, Self says, there was too much focus on whether injured center Joel Embiid would return for the NCAA Tournament. Embiid never did, of course, and a young Kansas team looked flat in a hard-fought victory over Eastern Kentucky and an eventual loss to Stanford.
“The key is energy,” Ellis said. “We may have been lacking a little energy out there for the first game. And that kind of hurt us.”
This year, the Jayhawks are not quite at full capacity as they prepare for madness. Ellis is still not 100 percent. Alexander could be done. Sophomore forward Landen Lucas is playing through a hip injury and some other smaller ailments. But Greene believes the Jayhawks will benefit from last year’s experience.
“We walked into it,” Greene said. “And didn’t have any idea what was going on last year. All of it just comes at you fast, and you’re just a little lost.”
“The focus isn’t on basketball anymore.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Jayhawks’ rug returned to its usual position in the locker room, and Self tried to keep the day as routine as possible. Who knows what happens next — this is March, after all — but the Jayhawks believe that the old rug still has a few wins left in it.
“This is the month where it all matters,” Greene said. “If we put it together this month, we could be really happy with the outcome of the season.”