DES MOINES, IOWA — The Kansas Jayhawks are in the hunt for their second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16, but to get their the reigning national champions most overcome a roadblock with athleticism so unique that even the Big 12 schedule may not have been completely adequate preparation.
That foe is the Arkansas Razorbacks, who are the eight seed in the West region of the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, but the Jayhawks are keenly aware of their talent and prowess despite their position in the middle of the seed list.
KU acting head coach Norm Roberts, senior guard Kevin McCullar and junior guard Joseph Yesufu all spoke during media availability in Des Moines on Friday, fresh off the Jayhawks’ dominant 96-68 opening-round win over the Howard Bison. When asked about the second-round opponent, all three immediately referenced Arkansas’s athleticism.
“Obviously, they have some of the best athletes in the country,” Roberts said. “They’ve got depth, they’ve got size and they’ve got great athletic ability.”
When asked whether or not any Big 12 teams remind him of the Razorbacks, Roberts said that the Texas Longhorns are the closest comparison, but even they aren’t a direct match, adding that he thinks Arkansas has three or four NBA-caliber players.
“I don’t think anybody in the country has as many athletes as Arkansas has,” Roberts said.
After an 11-1 start to the season, Arkansas is just 1o-12 since, though the Razorbacks did handle the Illinois Fighting Illini in the first round of the NCAA tournament 73-63.
The Jayhawks are favored in Saturday’s matchup, albeit by a historically small margin, and according to VSIN 60% of all money wagered on the game has been placed on KU. Still, the Jayhawks aren’t taking any part of this matchup lightly.
“We’ve got to be prepared for any game,” Yesufu said. “Anybody can get upset. We just have to take it game by game, focus in on the scout and not take anybody lightly in this tournament.”
The Jayhawks turned in a complete team performance on both ends against Howard, something they’ll need to do again to get by Arkansas. Defensively, as it has for most of the season, the strategy begins with the effectiveness of McCullar and junior guard Dajuan Harris. Although, Roberts said the whole team has to be locked in defensively against that aforementioned athleticism.
“It can’t just be one guy, because they are very good at putting it on the bounce and attacking the basket,” Roberts said. “We’ve got to be in gaps, we’ve got to help each other, we’ve got to communicate quite a bit.”
As for the offensive side, the KU starters carried the load in the opener, with all five scoring in double figures. That unit has carried the Jayhawks all season, which becomes less of a concern in the NCAA tournament when depth is generally considered less important.
Still, Yesufu, who’s been the first man off the bench for most of the year, sees an important role for the key reserves, which also includes the like of sophomore guard Bobby Pettiford and freshman center Ernest Udeh.
“We’re trying to go three weeks in the tournament,” Yesufu said, adding: “I feel like we just have to get these guys rest as much as we can.”
Even so, if the KU bench takes on a bigger role going forward through the tournament, its next opponent knows what group has carried the Jayhawks.
“Their starting five is as good as any starting five in the country, if not the best starting five in the entire country,” Arkansas coach
While much of the Kansas media session was focused on Arkansas Friday, the Razorbacks are aware of who they’re playing, too, and that’s one of the country’s premiere programs and a team trying to defend a national title.
For Arkansas junior guard Ricky Council IV, a transfer from Wichita State, KU is a tough out even though it may not have one of its most talented teams.
“I’ve seen them play since I was at Wichita State,” Council said. “Even their coach said this is the most connected team they’ve had in a while. Not their most talented, but most connected.”
Saturday’s game between Kansas and Arkansas is scheduled for 4:15 p.m. central time.
Click below to hear what Norm Roberts and the Jayhawks had to say ahead of their game with the Arkansas Razorbacks.