Once again, the madness of March is upon us, and as usual, college hoop heads are immersed in every level of speculation, statistical comparison, and expert analysis ahead of what’s expected to be a 68-team dogfight for the right to be known as national champions.
This year, defending national champs Villanova, 2016 runner-up North Carolina, increasingly-dangerous Duke, mighty mid-major Gonzaga, John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, Lonzo Ball-led UCLA and fellow Pac-12 power Arizona have all been labelled as potential champions. But despite earning the Midwest Region’s top seed and carrying only four losses into the festivities, Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks haven’t been getting the pre-tournament praise they deserve.
Slated to square-off with 16th-seeded UC Davis on Friday night, the Joshua Jackson-less Jayhawks didn’t really resemble a team that’s more than capable of mounting a charge towards a national championship when TCU knocked them out of the Big 12 Conference Tournament on March 9th. But judging by what we’ve seen so far, Kansas has already proven that it’s just as dangerous as any of the tourney’s top teams with wins over potential post-season big-shots like Duke, Kentucky, and Baylor [twice].
Still, after losing to Kentucky in the 2012 championship game, failing to reach the Final Four each of the last four times that they’ve been blessed with one of the tournament’s top seeds, and falling to eventual champion Villanova in last year’s Elite 8, the Jayhawks have a lot of people anticipating their early-round collapse.
Following a season-opening loss to Indiana, the Jayhawks went on to win 18 straight games before getting crushed 85-69 at West Virginia in late January and suffering an overtime loss in Lawrence to Iowa State three games later. And prior to being upset by TCU, Jackson and company rattled-off another eight straight victories in one of county’s toughest conferences on their way to securing the programs’s 28th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament–the longest streak in NCAA history.
When asked about these Jayhawks compared to other KU success stories of the past following February’s 67-65 win at Baylor, Self had very high praise for this year’s group–a team that also won the program its 13th consecutive Big 12 conference crown.
“As far as a mental toughness team, I would take this team and go to the house and let it ride however it goes.”
While both accomplished and experienced, Jay Wright’s 31-win Wildcats showed us that even they aren’t infallible by losing twice to Butler and once to 10th-seeded Marquette. Along with a pair of losses to Duke, as well as losses to Kentucky, Miami, and Virginia, North Carolina also dropped games to NIT teams such as Indiana and Georgia Tech. And although Gonzaga’s dominance of the West Coast Conference remains unquestioned, we all know that Mark Few’s Bulldogs have yet to truly succeed on the sport’s biggest stage.
However, despite their mid-season slump, the Blue Devils have suddenly become one of the most popular picks to win the tournament, and for some reason, many have now decided that Michigan’s recent runway misfortunes are enough to propel John Beilen’s 11-loss squad past the first few rounds and into a shining moment of their own.
If you’re searching for the sentimental, the fact that this will be Self’s last tournament with his son by his side may make some sort of magical difference. Of course, for a program that’s earned a top-two seed in each of the last eight seasons, motivation is never in short supply. But this season is all that matters now for the Jayhawks, and an impressive resume combined with a relatively experienced roster that includes Jackson and one of the nation’s most well-rounded talents in senior Frank Mason III is more than enough to carry Kansas past the negative nonsense and on to a national championship.