SALT LAKE CITY — The Kansas Jayhawks are in the unique position of being a four seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. While that would be a mark of success for most programs, that’s the lowest seed the Jayhawks have gotten since the 2006 tournament.
Still, Kansas is one of the top program in the country, had a generally good year and is favored against the Northeastern Huskies in the first round of this year’s tournament. The Jayhawks are young this year, with four freshmen in the starting lineup currently (and that will likely remain the case, as coach Bill Self said on Wednesday that despite vague comments earlier in the week he plans to start the same lineup on Thursday), but are still entering the tournament with 25 wins and as the runners up in this year’s Big 12 Tournament.
With all of that in mind, it’s not impossible to think KU could overlook its opponent in the opening round, a 13-seeded Northeastern team that finished second in the Colonial Athletic Conference and won that league’s tournament.
For freshman guard Quentin Grimes, however, staying focused on each opponent as they come up is crucial at this juncture.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things [Self] stresses,” Grimes said. “Just showing how good of a team they are, they play really good together, they have really good shooters so you definitely can’t take this team lightly.”
Three-point shooting is going to be an important factor in this game, considering Northeastern is one of the best team’s in the nation in that category, while Kansas is shooting just 32 percent from beyond the arc this year without senior guard Lagerald Vick, who left the program in February. Defending the three has also been a struggle for the Jayhawks at times this year. However, some of those past experiences against teams that shoot well could turn into a benefit for KU.
“Playing [Iowa State], all four of their guards can shoot it,” freshman guard Ochai Agbaji said. “So I think we’ll be guarding similar to how we did to them and also Texas Tech, too, they play four out-one in, and they can all shoot it, too.”
As for the KU youth movement, Self said that while experience, or a lack thereof in Kansas’ case, is a potential concern, it’s not the only factor that can decide tournament games.
“Who knows. It could. We’re young,” Self said. “And certainly I think there’s a lot of things that wins the tournament, one could be experience. I also think that there’s a lot of other things that win, too.”
Grimes said that the freshman-heavy lineup for the Jayhawks could actually be beneficial this year, mostly thanks to the chemistry that the group has developed over the course of the year.
“We can lean on each other if someone is struggling..,” Grimes said. “Everybody on the team gets along extremely well and I feel like that will be a big key if things start to go south in the game.”
In particular, Grimes said the relationship between himself and fellow freshman guard Devon Dotson will be an important aspect of KU’s tournament run. Those two have started every game for the Jayhawks, while Agbaji and freshman forward David McCormack didn’t see regular minutes until well into the season.
“I think we’ve matured a lot so fast,” Grimes said. “We kind of know what coach wants from us on the court and we can definitely talk to guys subbing in if they need help, we can definitely take on that leadership role if we need to tell somebody where they need to be. I believe we can definitely fill that role for Coach.”
Thursday’s game will mark the first tournament game ever for the Jayhawks in the state of Utah and their first against the Huskies. KU has won at least one game in the NCAA tournament in 12 consecutive years.
Click below to hear what Bill Self and the Jayhawks had to say ahead of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City: