It was early on Sunday morning, and the last two coaches to lead Kansas to an NCAA title were on the phone. The topic of discussion: Brackets, of course.
Larry Brown, the 73-year-old architect of a program resurrection at SMU, was confident that his bubble team would slide into the NCAA Tournament. So confident, in fact, that Brown wanted to chat with Kansas coach Bill Self, his one-time graduate assistant at KU, about potential early matchups.
Brown was convinced that SMU would see North Carolina, his alma mater, in the round of 64. The selection committee, Self said, has always appeared to have a sense of humor when sketching out the NCAA Tournament field.
Self, meanwhile, mulled his own program’s fate. He thought its resume — including strong numbers in the RPI and BPI rankings — was strong enough to merit a No. 2 seed. He even held out hope for a No. 1 seed if things broke right. But he wondered if a 2-2 run over their last four games — and a back injury to starting center Joel Embiid — might drop the Jayhawks’ to the No. 3 line.
“We had 12 wins against the top 50 (in the RPI),” Self said later on Sunday. “Whereas some of the other teams they were considering had five or six.”
In the end, the selection committee delivered some dark humor to SMU — Brown’s team was left out of the tourney — and some familiar names to Kansas. One look at Kansas’ Final Four path, and a familiar theme emerged: Rematches.
The Jayhawks landed as the No. 2 seed in the South Region, and they will open against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky around 3:10 p.m. Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The game will air on TBS.
If the Jayhawks advance, they will face the winner of No. 7 seed New Mexico — a team they’ve already defeated — and No. 10 Stanford on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Memphis, Tenn.
They could also face a rematch against No. 1 seed Florida in a regional final — if both teams advance that far. Kansas lost 67-61 on Dec. 10 in Gainesville, Fla.
“You could make a case that a team that has a chip on their shoulder may have the advantage,” Self said of the potential rematches. “But you could also make a case that the team that won has the confidence.”
On the whole, it could be a treacherous path for Kansas, which played the nation’s toughest schedule and lost nine times before the NCAAs for the first time since 2000. The Jayhawks were paired with the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed (Florida), and No. 3 seed Syracuse — and its vaunted 2-3 zone — looms as a Sweet 16 matchup. The No. 4 seed in the South is UCLA, which upset No. 1 seed Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament.
But after winning its 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title, the Jayhawks perhaps saw their tourney stock slip after losing two of three and losing Embiid indefinitely to injury.
“In our regional, you have the best team in the country,” Self said. “You have a team (Syracuse) that, four weeks ago, was thought to be the best team in the country. You have a team in UCLA that’s one of the hottest teams in the country. So you can make a case that if everybody in their regional plays to their ceiling, our regional can be about good as anybody’s.”
But Self, like many coaches, likes to divide the NCAA Tournament into three four-team minitournaments. If the Jayhawks survive St. Louis, they can think about a potential run to the Final Four and a possible rematch with Florida. But this year, there’s added incentive to march on. Self said Sunday that the stress fracture in Embiid’s back is still improving, but he doubts he’ll play this weekend.
“For me to be optimistic about this weekend would not be an accurate statement,” Self said. “But I’m not saying it couldn’t happen.
“I do feel optimistic about next week.”
For now, Self said that he would wait until later in the week to rule on Embiid’s status.
“It’s all symptom-related and how he responds,” Self said. “And he’s responding very favorably right now.”
Embiid, who celebrated his 20th birthday Sunday, joined his teammates at Allen Fieldhouse for an NCAA selection watch party. Just 48 hours earlier, the Jayhawks had lost 94-83 to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals at the Sprint Center, and they were anxious for new life.
“None of the games we played before matter now,” sophomore forward Jamari Traylor said. “We’re worried about the next two.”
In the hours before the selection show, Kansas hit the practice floor and tried to learn from its defensive no-show against Iowa State on Friday night. And when the bracket was revealed, and Eastern Kentucky popped up on the screen, Self pulled up the season statistics. One of the first things he told his team: Eastern Kentucky has shot more threes than Iowa State.
For Self, the message was straight forward. Forget about the path. For the next week, focus on playing with energy on defense and guarding the three-point line.
“We’re not great defensively,” Self said, “but we can play great defensively when we play with energy. And that’s been proven. But when we don’t, there’s too big of drop-off.”