March is officially here, and the brackets are out. The Kansas Jayhawks are the #2 seed in the Midwest Region, which has been dubbed as the toughest region by several college basketball analysts. Included in the Midwest is the #1 overall seed in the tournament, the champion of the stacked ACC Tournament, and two other Big 12 schools. Let’s take a look at the teams the Jayhawks will have to get through should they hope to advance to the Final Four.
Round of 64: #15 New Mexico State Aggies
To open its tournament, Kansas will face the #15 seed in the Midwest Region, the New Mexico State Aggies. The champions of the Western Athletic Conference regular season and Tournament went 23-10 in the regular season, but its final record can be deceiving. After beginning the season 5-9, the Aggies concluded its season by winning 18 of their last 19 games. New Mexico State is currently riding a 13 game win streak – it has not lost since January 17.
A strong defense is a staple of the Aggies’ game. Out of 345 teams in Division I college basketball, New Mexico State’s mark of 59.3 points allowed per game is an impressive 19th. It rebounds at a solid rate of 36 per contest, good for 111th in the country. Senior 6’8 forward Remi Barry leads the Aggies with 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, and according to Joe Lunardi, New Mexico State was undressed. He mocked the Aggies as high as a 13 seed two days ago, and eventually projected them at a 14 seed in his final bracket before Selection Sunday. Finally, the Aggies played two teams that finished the season in the AP Top 25 poll, and lost both. They opened the season with a 71-54 loss at Wichita State, and on December 17, they put forth a solid effort before ultimately losing by 11 at Baylor.
If history is any indication, the Jayhawks shouldn’t worry about an upset in the round of 64. Only seven #15 seeds in NCAA Tournament history have upset a #2, so as long as Kansas can control the glass and control Barry, it should be able to get by.
Round of 32: #7 Wichita State Shockers/#10 Indiana Hoosiers
Either way, the Jayhawks’ defense will be tested in the round of 32. Both potential opponents boast terrific backcourts: from the Shockers’ duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell/James Blackmon combo, Kansas better prepare to face a pair of starting guards that average more than 27 points per game. Indiana averaged nearly 78 points per game, good for top 20 overall, while Wichita State’s 55.8 points per game allowed rate ranked 7th in the entire country.
Wichita State (28-4) appears to be the more likely opponent, setting the stage for a matchup that college basketball fans everywhere have been awaiting for years. Many felt that the Shockers were underseeded, including ESPN’s Lunardi, who mocked Wichita State as a 5 seed in his final update. Coming off of a second straight Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship, the Shockers are anxious to prove their legitimacy after going just 1-2 against ranked foes in the regular season. The committee certainly was eyeing a Kansas-Wichita State matchup, but it’s no slam dunk that the Jayhawks will even face Indiana (20-13). The Hoosiers were a surprise tournament team to many, as Lunardi had Indiana as his first team out of the field. Both teams are battle-tested and would test KU’s defense, but as long as Kansas is able to make a few threes and play solid backcourt defense, it should be able to survive either squad.
Sweet 16: #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Going by chalk would slate Kansas against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 round. The Fighting Irish finished the season at 29-5. They enter the tournament after rolling through the ACC Tournament, defeating both Duke and North Carolina en route to winning the school’s first such title. Notre Dame’s 14-4 regular season mark in ACC play netted it a third-place finish, and it’s yet another terrific guard that could spell problems for Kansas should the two teams meet.
USA Today First-Team All American Jerian Grant is one of the best point guards in the country. The 6’5 senior averages 16.8 points and a whopping 6.6 assists per contest, and he’s a huge reason why the Fighting Irish are 12th in America with nearly 79 points per game. More impressively, Notre Dame is #2 nationally with a 51% field goal percentage. Guard play is a staple for success in the tournament, and that’s exactly why Notre Dame figures to be a popular upset pick come tournament time. The Fighting Irish are talented and experienced, but the battle-tested Jayhawks should have what it takes to make this matchup go down to the wire.
Elite 8: #1 Kentucky Wildcats
The undefeated Wildcats enter the 2015 Tournament as the undeniable favorite. At 34-0, Kentucky figures to roll through to the Elite 8 before a potential rematch with the Kansas Jayhawks looms. Back on November 18, the Wildcats crushed the Jayhawks 72-40 in one of the more stunning performances of the season. Kentucky blocked as many shots as the Jayhawks made field goals (11), and Kansas was held to an astonishing 19% shooting rate from the floor.
Should the two teams meet again with a trip to Indianapolis on the line, the Jayhawks couldn’t possibly play any worse. Kansas would have to deal with a team that ranks 3rd in points allowed, 2nd in blocked shots, and 18th in rebounds per game. National Defensive Player of the Year Willie Cauley-Stein combines with SEC Freshman of the Year Karl Anthony-Towns to form a devastating duo under the basket, so in order to pull off the upset, the Jayhawks would certainly have to shoot the ball well from the outside. Kansas went just 3-15 from three in the November beatdown, which certainly wouldn’t cut it.
If Kansas makes the Elite 8, nobody will anticipate them slaying the biggest Goliath of the NCAA Tournament. Kansas would have nothing to lose and everything to gain. When you have a team as unpredictable as the young Jayhawks, anything can happen, and besides, if they hope to win the NCAA Title, they’ll likely have to defeat Kentucky at some point down the road.
People everywhere are dreading the Jayhawks’ 2015 NCAA Tournament run before it even begins. It’s March, and nobody knows what’s about to happen. Everybody is 0-0, and the real fun is about to begin. The Jayhawks are preparing for a run at their sixth national championship, and considering how crazy this season has been, absolutely anything can happen.