Is Kansas a Sleeper in This Year’s NCAA Tournament?

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light. And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout, But there’s little joy in Larryville — the mighty Jayhawks aren’t picked to win out. (Apologies to Ernest Thayer)

Three years removed from playing in the National Championship Game, Kansas no longer finds itself as a favored pick to win many games in this year’s NCAA tournament. Disastrous collapses in four of the last five years have taken its toll on many bracket prognosticators.

Let’s recap:

2010 (#1 seed): Kansas loses to Northern Iowa, a 9 seed, in the second round. Ali Farokmanesh became a household name in what was one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. It was a staggering defeat for sure, but not really cause for concern, as the Jayhawks had won it all just two years prior.

2011 (#1 seed): The Jayhawks lose to VCU an 11 seed in the Elite 8. I remember this as the game the Morris twins tried to intimidate the opposing players beforehand in the tunnel. VCU brought it on the court, KU didn’t. The Jayhawks were one win away from a Final Four without any other #1 or #2 seeds, and they would have been favored by double-digits in both the Final Four and National Title game.

2012 (#2 seed): KU defeats a 1 seed (North Carolina) and a 2 seed (Ohio State) en route to the National title game, where it lost to Kentucky. The Wildcats were the tournament’s #1 overall seed, and the Jayhawks played them much closer than anyone expected. All in all, it was a very successful tournament run, and it occurred when expectations were lower than they were in any of these five other seasons.

2013 (#1 seed): Kansas loses to 4th-seed Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. This is the game that KU had all-but-won until Trey Burke went all Mario Chalmers and nailed clutch three after clutch three. Michigan went on to the National Title game, losing to Louisville, following a path that KU could have easily replicated. KU’s loss in 2013 seems to be the breaking point for many folks, as it led by 10 with just over three minutes left and wilted away behind bad clock management, missed free throws, horrific turnovers, and head-scratching coaching decisions.

2014 (#2 seed): KU loses to Stanford, a 10 seed, in the Round of 32. The year had been shaping up so promisingly, with Joel Embiid learning basketball so quickly and becoming the monster inside presence that Kansas seeks every year. However, a back injury sidelined him in late February, and KU hobbled into the tourney clearly vulnerable without him. People took notice and the bandwagon was abandoned by a large contingent, though most people still expected the Jayhawks to get out of the first weekend. They didn’t.

That brings us to this year’s tournament. A quick review of pundit picks shows few who think KU will survive past the Round of 32, some who even think it’ll lose in the Round of 64. Absolutely no one seems to think that it will make it to the Final Four. Yes, I realize that the all-mighty Kentucky is the 1 seed in the Midwest region with Kansas, but two of ESPN’s 20 “experts” have chosen Wichita State to advance to the Final Four from the Midwest. All four SI.com analysts, all four College Basketball Talk experts, and five of CBS’ six TV personalities are also picking the Shockers.

The reason for the pundits to put little stock into KU’s chances this year seems fairly clear. KU finds itself in a very similar situation to last year. The Jayhawks’ strongest presence inside, Cliff Alexander, is likely done for the season due to an apparent NCAA violation by a family member. Making matters worse, Perry Ellis, the Jayhawks’ leading scorer, is slowed by a sprained knee. The stars are aligning, the experts believe, for an early KU exit.

Or are they?

What should give Jayhawk fans belief that this year will be better than 2014’s disappointing ending? First and foremost, the attitude and approach to the situation taken by head coach Bill Self is very different. Last year when Embiid was out, Self was passive about the situation; some might say he was “soft”.  His mind-set was ‘let’s just get through this next stretch, the end of conference play, the Big 12 tournament, and the first couple rounds of the NCAA tournament, and surely by then we’ll be back to full strength. By that point, we’ll be ready to make a run for the NCAA Title’. Players follow their leader, and last year’s passive play lead to a loss in the Round of 32. Recently, Coach Self has been very candid in saying he thinks his approach last year was a mistake.

This year, when faced with the late-February loss of Cliff Alexander, Self’s response totally changed. Within a few days of seeing how the situation with the NCAA might drag out, Coach Self essentially “moved on” and began re-tooling the team with available players, such as Landen Lucas and Hunter Mickelson. Those two have now played major roles in the last six games, two of which Ellis also missed completely and one against Iowa State where his effectiveness was limited in the second half. In other words, both of Kansas’ top two big men are either out or limited, and Self has responded by allowing the backups to get more experience before the NCAA Tournament begins.

So where does this leave Kansas? KU will not be overlooked by anyone in the tournament. Every opponent will go for the jugular to take down a blue-blood. However, the psyche of 17-to-21 year old males is unpredictable. How will the Jayhawks react to pundit-snubbing? How will they react when attacked by the vengeful Shockers on the court? Is this a close-knit group that will circle the wagons and keep their eye on the ball when it’s gut check time? (That’s four clichés in one paragraph if you’re counting).

Bill Self has a vast amount of experience in pushing the buttons of young KU players. Will he find the right combination to push this year to get the maximum performance out of his players? Has he had enough time to reconfigure the team to take best advantage of available players?  The more practices it has and the more games it plays, the more likely it is this team will come together as a contender. It’s not advisable to bet against Bill Self, who’s won 15 out of 18 regular season conference championships and has made seven of the last nine Sweet Sixteens. He may have had just enough time to turn KU from an early-exit pick to a sleeper on a mission.

Ever since that crushing Michigan loss, Kansas may be perceived to be down, but pity the pundit who counts them out.

Names Jaysmith

Staff writer for Rock Chalk Blog. twitter.com/namesjaysmith