DES MOINES, IOWA — The Kansas Jayhawks are back in a familiar spot this week, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and heavy favorites over their 16-seed foe. But while narratives abound this week comparing the latest Jayhawks to the ones who won last year’s national championship, this year’s squad is refocusing their attention in a different way.
After all, more than 70% of last year’s offensive production left in the offseason, so this group has had to find other players to rely on and other ways to win. That process all begins with fourth-year forward Jalen Wilson.
“Last year it was an older team and we had a lot of vets, so it was easier,” junior guard Dajuan Harris said. “But this year, J-Wil, one of the best players in the country, he’s leading us and it’s going to be his last year here so we want to try to do our best for him.”
Wilson, along with Harris, was a key contributor for last year’s championship team, averaging 12 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in the 2022 NCAA tournament. This year, however, he ascended to college basketball superstardom, earning first-team All-America honors and being named the Big 12 Player of the Year.
Despite his increased success and profile, along with the burden of defending a title, Wilson said he isn’t feeling additional pressure in his final NCAA tournament run.
“I don’t feel any pressure at all. That’s the beauty of this tournament, it’s a lot of one-game tournaments,” Wilson said. “I embrace having fun. This is the best time of year for basketball … I don’t feel any pressure at all. I think we’re here to do what we know how to do, play our basketball and have fun.”
Jayhawks acting head coach Norm Roberts concurred, adding that facing everyone’s best shot isn’t anything new for Kansas.
“The good thing is when you’re at Kansas you’re always getting everybody’s best shot every time you play,” Roberts said. “So it’s just added on to us being national champions and those type of things. We haven’t talked about that a ton. What we have talked about is staying in the moment and playing for now.”
Whether or not the Jayhawks will be at full strength as they open their tournament run is still unknown. Kansas does expect to have senior guard Kevin McCullar back after he missed the Big 12 Tournament championship game, but coach Bill Self is still day-to-day, according to Roberts, after having a heart procedure last week.
Self has been at practice, however, and Roberts said he was getting after the players like normal on Wednesday.
“He’s looking great, feeling great,” Wilson said. “He’s excited, we’re all excited.”
Kansas will play the Howard Bison in the first round on Thursday, the winners of this year’s MEAC Tournament. Howard has 22 wins the season, the most it’s had in a single season in 50 years. The Bison are also one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, the 23rd best mark in the country overall and the 11th best among NCAA tournament teams.
KU is still a 22.5-point favorite despite Howard’s shooting prowess, and advanced metrics back up that point spread. According to KenPom, Kansas is the No. 9 team in the nation while Howard is ranked 216th, the third-lowest mark of any tournament team.
Regardless of the opponent, the NCAA tournament will be a welcome sight for the Jayhawks. It’s the most important time of year for college basketball, of course, but it’s also a chance for KU to play someone other than a Big 12 foe, something they’ve only done one time since the start of the calendar year.
“The Big 12 was the hardest conference in the country this year, or the best conference in the country,” Harris said. “So I’m happy to play someone different, see someone new. We just have to be ready to play.”
Although, Roberts did point out that Howard shares some similarities to Kansas’ most common opponents.
“They’re very, very long. They’ve got a lot of size on the perimeter,” Roberts said. “They’re big and we’ve had to deal with that all season.”
Kansas is a perfect 15-0 all time against 16 seeds, and will try to keep that streak alive Thursday at 1:00 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena. If it follows the script it’s prepared throughout the season, KU should return to the Round of 32 for the 16th consecutive tournament.
Click below to hear what Norm Roberts and the Jayhawks had to say ahead of KU’s NCAA tournament game against Howard.