Late on Friday night, as Kansas packed up its locker room inside the Sprint Center, Andrew Wiggins zipped up a warmup jacket and leaned back in his chair.
Nearly 35 minutes earlier, KU had fallen 94-83 to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals, and if reality hadn’t set in yet, Wiggins began to sense the moment. The next time Kansas loses will be the last time he suits up for a college game.
“We have another chance,” Wiggins said. “This is a lot of the teammates’ first experience at the postseason, so we just have one more chance left.”
So here come the Jayhawks, headed into the NCAA Tournament with their starting center on the sideline and plenty of question marks on defense.
Wiggins still believes Kansas can make a deep run, even with Joel Embiid still recovering from a stress fracture in his back. Embiid hasn’t been officially ruled out for the opening weekend of the tournament, but KU coach Bill Self says the percentages point to him sitting another week.
“We know that we’re capable of beating any team on any given night,” Wiggins said on Friday.
So now the Jayhawks will wait to see their path and matchups. Kansas will gather to watch the NCAA selection show at 5 p.m. Sunday. After Friday’s loss, the Jayhawks project as a likely No. 2 seed. They have suffered nine losses — the most by a Kansas team before the tournament since 2000 — but their overall resume is still solid.
The Jayhawks, 24-9, entered Saturday rated No. 3 in the NCAA’s RPI metric, one slot ahead of likely No. 1 seed Wichita State. They have recorded 12 victories against top-50 RPI teams, the most in the country, and they have played the nation’s toughest schedule.
Consider: Kansas has played 19 games against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, while ACC teams Duke, Syracuse and Virginia — all candidates for high seeds — have combined to play just 26 games against the RPI top 50.
For now, Kansas will likely head to St. Louis for its first two games. The NCAA selection committee attempts to keep the top seeds close to home during the early rounds, and St. Louis would be the most appealing destination for KU. But it is not quite a lock.
Wichita State, the probable No. 1 seed in the Midwest, will likely be sent to St. Louis, and that leaves one top seed to anchor the four-team pods at the site. If another team close by — let’s say Louisville — is graded higher than Kansas on the NCAA’s S-curve, that team could end up in St. Louis, and KU could be headed to San Antonio for the early rounds.
The Jayhawks’ region will also likely stay a mystery until Sunday evening. The most desirable scenario — for story lines and basketball reasons — could be the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, which would set up a potential Elite Eight matchup with Wichita State in Indianapolis.
But the Jayhawks’ late-season slide — and the injury to Embiid — seems to have put many scenarios in play. The selection committee could choose to downgrade Kansas’ seed, based on what they are without Embiid. But that will largely be based on the opinions of committee members. So the Jayhawks could be the No. 2 seed in the South Region, opposite No. 1 Florida, or they could land in the West Region, where Arizona appears a lock for the No. 1 seed.
“I don’t know if there’s any magical thing right now that we’ll definitely be this (seed) in this region or anything like that,” Self said. “Because right now, I don’t really know.”
“Even if you win the (Big 12) tournament,” Self said. “By Sunday at 5 p.m., it doesn’t matter.”
Self mentioned Kansas’ loss to Baylor in the semifinals of the 2012 Big 12 Tournament. That worked out pretty well. The Jayhawks would win five straight before falling to Kentucky in the NCAA title game in New Orleans.