Kansas Jayhawks survive against Providence Friars 66-61, advance to Elite 8

CHICAGO — Neither the Kansas Jayhawks nor Providence Friars played aesthetically pleasing basketball at the United Center on Friday night in the Sweet 16, with two of the nation’s better offenses instead missing a vast majority of their shots and duking it out a much more defensive-minded battle.

When the dust settled, though, the Jayhawks were able to withstand their own shooting woes and a second-half Friars run to come away victorious 66-61.

That sends KU back to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018.

“The lid came off for them and really never came off for us, but we hung in there and grinded,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And had some guys make some big individual plays when really we didn’t have much offense going. Couldn’t be happier that we get a chance to play on Sunday.”

For as bad as the first half was as a whole for KU’s offense, once again it was senior guard Remy Martin who put the Jayhawks on his back. In the first half, Martin had 13 of KU’s 26 points on 6-of-9 shooting. The rest of the team had just 13 points on 6-of-25 from the floor, 24% shooting.

That’s been a trend for Martin, who pulled off a similar feat in Kansas’s win over Creighton in the second round.

“All the practices, everything that we’ve done leading up to this point, we revert back to that,” Martin said. “We work really hard in practice. We do what needs to be done. We listen to coach. And once we’re in those type of environments, we just revert back to that and stay calm and let each other know that they’re going to go through their runs. But as long as we stick together, like we’ve been doing the whole season, we’ll get through this.

If Martin had the starring role in Friday’s Sweet 16 win, Jalen Wilson got the nod for best supporting actor. For the second game in a row Wilson racked up a double-double, scoring 16 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, 10 of which came in the first half.

Wilson made one of the biggest plays of the game, too, an and-one layup in transition that erased Providence’s lone lead of the second half with 5:21 to play.

“I saw how excited they were getting,” Wilson said. “They started to talk a little bit. I’m so confident in me and my team that I know that that fuels us just as much. Plus, we never get rattled.”

While Self refuted that the Jayhawks never get rattled, he did say that playing in the Big 12 prepared KU well for a knock-down, drag-out game like this.

“That was a really physical game and it was called a little bit tighter second half,” Self said. “But I think our guys have enough individual confidence that when things don’t go well as a team, they think that they can go make an individual play. And sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but tonight it did.”

While the bad offensive game was a theme for Kansas as a whole, even with the performances of Martin and Wilson, it was most evident for senior guard Ochai Agbaji. His three-point shooting has tailed off since the start of February, but his overall shooting has struggled mightily during the postseason.

He’s just 12-of-36 from the floor in three NCAA tournament games, or 31.6%. Even so, and even considering his 2-of-8 shooting night for just five points against Providence, Self remains confident in the consensus All-American.

“I know one thing: the lid will come off eventually. And when it does, it will be good for KU people,” Self said. “But right now I think he’s doing enough stuff to help us win and we’ve had other guys step up. So we don’t put too much emphasis on that at all.”

Agbaji did have four blocks in the game, a game and career high.

Despite another down night from one of the best players in the country and a game that was anything but aesthetically pleasing on offense, the Jayhawks pulled out another win. That’s eight wins in a row, in fact.

Continuing a theme that came up earlier in the week, Self said the team is embracing a new style that’s less reliant on making shots.

“We made them play poor. They made us play poor. But when the other team can’t score, you’re not going to lose very often,” Self said. “And even though we didn’t guard them great the second half, I think the totality of the game certainly, that played to our favor.”

There’s still more work to be done this weekend for Kansas, which will play the winner of Miami and Iowa State on Sunday at 1:20 p.m.

With a win in the Elite 8, KU will head back to the Final 4. And it will be happy no matter how it gets there, even if it’s another brawl like it played against Providence.

“If it gets ugly, it comes to defensive rebounding and playing like that, if we win like that every game I’m not tripping, that’s how it is,” Wilson said.