NCAA Tournament

Kansas thinks it’s battle-tested as it prepares to take on Carolina

In the moments after Kansas’ victory over No. 16 seed Western Kentucky on Friday night, KU senior Elijah Johnson lavished some credibility on a long-suspected theory.

This Kansas team, like many squads before it, is most comfortable in a high-stakes, blue-blooded affair. This was Johnson’s message after the Jayhawks skated by in a lackluster effort in round one. And this was why he wasn’t as concerned as some of those outsiders who tuned into the Western Kentucky game for an up-close look at Bill Self’s latest No. 1 seed.

“When Coach offers you a scholarship,” Johnson said on Saturday, “you know that you come here to play against teams like this. Dukes, Carolinas, Kentuckys so that there is enough.”

Johnson, of course, said these words as top-seeded Kansas prepared for another battle with North Carolina. The Jayhawks will take the floor against the eighth-seeded Tar Heels at 4:15 p.m. today at the Sprint Center. And with another trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, Johnson and his teammates are hoping the inconvenient symptoms of nerves and tightness are all out of their system.

“The pressure is off now,” senior guard Travis Releford said, “now that we got past the first game. And that’s how we looked at it. Once we got over that first-game hump, coach said we could relax.”

This latest Kansas-North Carolina showdown is rare for a number of reasons, and not just because the two power programs have only faced each other 10 times in their histories. (North Carolina leads 6-4.)

Last season, No. 2 seed Kansas outlasted No. 1 North Carolina in the Elite Eight with toughness and defense. But the dynamics of the matchup have shifted plenty in just one calendar year. Last season’s North Carolina squad featured a frontcourt of future first-round picks Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes. This year’s version features one starter — sophomore forward James McAdoo — taller than 6-foot-7. And the Tar Heels’ offense is predicated on three-point shooting and quickness.

The Tar Heels will try to pull KU center Jeff Withey away from the basket. And as a result, Self said the Jayhawks had to dominate on the interior.

“We gotta be able to take advantage of them scoring the ball inside,” Self said. “Because they’re gonna try to take advantage of us, taking our bigs away from the basket.”

On Saturday, Johnson said that KU’s experience against Iowa State — a team that spreads the floor — would help in their preparation against North Carolina. The Jayhawks finished 3-0 against the Cyclones, but struggled at times to guard the perimeter.

“We can play different styles,” Johnson said. “We can do different strategies. We can also stretch the floor. So I don’t think it’s something we haven’t seen ever.”

Still, Self cautioned that Iowa State didn’t have an inside threat like the Tar Heels’ McAdoo, who is averaging 14.5 points per game.

“I thought McAdoo was their best big guy in the game (last year),” Self said. “He’s a load. He’s a talent.”

Finally, Kansas will have to deal with the burden of being the favorite. Self’s Kansas teams are 2-0 against North Carolina and former KU coach Roy Williams, including an 84-66 beatdown in the 2008 Final Four. But those teams, even the eventual national champs, were not consensus favorites.

This time, they are. And after struggling against Western Kentucky, the Jayhawks are hoping a North Carolina rematch will provide just the right spark.

“Just play and be physical and enjoy every moment of it,” Kansas senior Jeff Withey said. “I think that’s the most fun part about it. (We’re) just trying to embrace the moment and have fun with it. I’m ready for it. And I know that we’re gonna get ready and we’re gonna be fine.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star