Texas Southern Tigers welcome challenge of facing Kansas Jayhawks

The Texas Southern Tigers have become something of a marvel at the NCAA tournament First Four in recent years. Coach Johnny Jones’s team has won a First Four game in each of the last two seasons after beating Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Tuesday night, and in four appearances in Dayton, Ohio since 2014 the Tigers have won and advanced to the main bracket three times.

However, now as the sole possessor of the 16 seed in this year’s Midwest regional, Texas Southern has a much more challenging test on in front of it: the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks.

For multiple reasons, history is not on the Tigers’ side. No. 1 seeds are 143-1 against No. 16 seeds, the lone exception being UMBC’s shocking blowout of Virginia in 2018. Head-to-head, KU has four victories to none for Texas Southern, and while two of those contests (1985 and 1981) were decided by four or fewer points, the other two were both decided by 37 or more. That includes a 43-point Jayhawks win over the Tigers in 2017.

Texas Southern, though, is embracing the challenge of facing one of the best teams in the nation in the tournament.

“[We] had a hard fought battle last night in Dayton against a very good Texas A&M Corpus Christi basketball team,” Jones said. “And we’re fortunate that our guys played well there in the second half to put us in position to have a chance to come battle a great tradition in Kansas basketball, coach Bill Self and his program, in this one.”

With all of the Tigers’ experience playing in the First Four, they also have plenty of experience in playing in a tournament atmosphere twice in three days in two different cities. After taking down a team with a similar resume to its own, Texas Southern has a quick turnaround before battling a bona fide national title contender.

“Yeah, the last 24 hours have been crazy, of course,” senior forward John Walker III said. “Exciting. Also just locking back in on Kansas, though. They’re definitely going to be a competitive matchup. We’re excited for the challenge.”

Fast turnaround or not, and even as major underdogs, the Tigers have high expectations for what Thursday first-round game can look like.

“They’re a very good ball team,” senior forward Brison Gresham said. “They play fast. They’re competitive. They compete at a high level. And I feel like we compete at a high level, as well. It’ll be a good game.”

While they’ve rarely faced each other, there’s a personal element to this game for Jones and Kansas coach Bill Self. Self spoke both over the weekend and on Wednesday about knowing Jones for years, while Jones complimented both Self’s character and coaching ability.

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching them several times,” Jones said. “He’s … one of my teams that I have to tell you that I enjoy watching the style of play and the way they get after it.”

As for the matchup itself between Texas Southern and Kansas, the area to watch will likely be the paint. That’s where KU senior forward David McCormack has been dominant of late, and it’s also where Gresham has found success in his senior year. Self even called Gresham one of the most athletic big men the Jayhawks have seen all year.

For Gresham, he wants a chance to play a physical brand of basketball against McCormack and the Jayhawks.

“He’s a big guy. Physical,” Gresham said. “I hope the refs let us play physical. So hopefully it will be a very good, competitive game.”

Gresham went on to add: “I love playing physical. I love seeing, like, physical bigs. I miss that style of play, really.”

This Texas Southern team is in a familiar place, facing a powerhouse on short rest with little time to prepare. The Tigers are exuding confidence, but there’s a challenging climb ahead of them if they want to compete against the top seed in the region.

“At the end of the day, though, they’re a terrific basketball team and it’s going to be a very difficult and obviously a tough game for us,” Jones said. “We’ll have to defend extremely hard.”

Click here to hear what Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones about playing Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament.