When Bill Self walked in the door of Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday, he had a pretty good idea of what was to come. His team had gathered to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show. And after a dominating victory over Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament final Saturday night, he thought his team had a decent shot of landing one of the coveted No. 1 seeds.
“I told (the team) that we were probably gonna be 50-50, a one or a two,” Self said.
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But just past 5 p.m., when Self saw Duke pop up as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, Self began to re-calculate.
“Well,” Self said, “that eliminates 50 percent of it.”
For a Kansas program used to the routine of Selection Sunday, that was about the extent of the drama. The seventh-ranked Jayhawks, 29-5, did, indeed, land the No. 1 seed in the South Region, and as expected, they will return to Kansas City this week to begin their tournament path against No. 16 Western Kentucky, tipping off about 8:50 p.m. Friday at the Sprint Center on TNT. The Jayhawks also earned the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament behind Louisville.
But if the seeding felt old-hat, the Jayhawks’ road to the regional semifinals and final at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and the Final Four in Atlanta came with the usual proportion of Selection Sunday intrigue. If the Jayhawks handle Western Kentucky, they could face the prospect of another tourney showdown with former KU coach Roy Williams and North Carolina — the same program Kansas knocked off in last year’s Elite Eight.
The Tar Heels, 24-10, drew the No. 8 seed and will face No. 9 Villanova in their opening game in Kansas City at 6:20 Friday night. That matchup, along with the presence of No. 2 seed Georgetown, No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Michigan in the South Region, definitely drew the attention of Self.
“Everybody will say this,” Self said, “but I don’t think (the committee) did us any favors. Because, obviously, it’s a tough bracket. And I would think the so-called experts would probably think this is probably as tough a bracket as there is.”
In most seasons, North Carolina would probably be seeded higher than eighth. But the Tar Heels struggled early before winning eight of their last 10 and advancing to the ACC tournament title game. Since Jan. 27, the Tar Heels have only lost to Duke and Miami.
But now they come to Kansas City — Williams’ first trip to the Sprint Center — and Self joked Sunday about the ongoing rumors of the NCAA selection committee’s sense of humor.
“I know we’re just focused on Western Kentucky,” Self said. “But if it goes that direction, and we both win a game, I’m sure Kansas City will have a little interest, based on the past.”
That past includes Kansas victories over North Carolina in the 2008 Final Four and last year’s Elite Eight. But first, the Jayhawks must move past Western Kentucky, 20-15, which earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Sun Belt tournament.
And if there was one thing KU senior center Jeff Withey didn’t want to do on Sunday, it was look ahead to potential matchups. The same went for all of Kansas’ seniors, who took turns talking about the future — and the past.
In Elijah Johnson’s four seasons at Kansas, the Jayhawks have earned three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2. In 2010 and 2011, the years they earned a top seed, the season ended short of the Final Four. Last year, when the Jayhawks broke through with a run to the championship game in New Orleans, they were a No. 2.
“We’ve been in this type of situation before,” KU senior Travis Releford said on Sunday. “We’ve been on teams that have been the No. 1 seed and didn’t come out with the outcome that we expected. So we’re going in this, and trying to play every game at our best. And we’re not looking down on any team.”
The Jayhawks, of course, will also have the advantage of playing just 40 miles from campus. And that will add to the expectations of being a No. 1 seed. But as Johnson said on Sunday, this team feels different than those No. 1 seeds that came up short.
“It’s not the most talented team that we’ve had at Kansas,” Johnson said, “Even in my four years. My freshman year with Sherron (Collins), and my sophomore year with the (Morris twins), those were some good teams.
“And I feel like we had targets on our back then, and we didn’t respond the way we should have. This is a more humble team.”
On Sunday, the bracket was finally laid out. And now the road begins. For a Kansas team that suffered a three-game losing streak in February, earning a No. 1 seed felt like an even worthier accomplishment. But now, Self said, the goal is to play like a No. 1 seed.
“We’re the No. 2 overall seed,” Self said. “Who would have thought that would be the case with this team? And I’m not gonna get hung up on ‘We have to do this, and we have to do that.’ And I hope the players don’t either. What we need to do is just go have fun and play.”