It’s the match made in heaven for Wichita State and in hell as far as Kansas is concerned.
Kansas and Wichita State took opposite routes Friday to end up at the same destination for Sunday.
The Jayhawks looked more KU-like than they have in a long time in dispatching New Mexico State, 76-57. Wichita State, however, had to gut out an 81-76 victory over Indiana behind a monumental game by the bobbing-and-weaving Fred VanVleet.
So after 22 years of avoidance, the NCAA has made it so we have the game the Jayhawks have steered clear of as the Shockers finally get their shot at the Sunflower State’s gold standard.
First games of a tournament for KU are always so nerve-wracking, as the Jayhawks typically are a high seed and play down to the level of their competition. And given how this year’s team has had wandering-focus issues, I thought an upset was entirely possible.
But Kansas never trailed and methodically picked apart the Aggies’ “amoeba defense” that was one of the weakest zones I can recall seeing. You could drive a truck though the middle, which KU did, and it led to a 54-percent shooting night.
It was about as stress-free of a win as the Jayhawks have enjoyed in a couple of months. Oddly, only Frank Mason scored in double figures (17), but there were a bunch of players in the 7- to 9-point range.
KU motored into the next round even though Perry Ellis played subpar, and Wayne Selden and Kelly Oubre were pedestrian.
Wichita State, on the other hand, jumped on VanVleet’s back as he may have been the best player of the opening round of the tournament to date. Ron Baker scored 15 points, but he did his damage at the foul line late that masked his 3-of-13 shooting effort from the field. The Shocks received turbo boosts from Zach Brown (11 points) and Shaq Morris (8) off the bench.
KU coach Bill Self always says his team can gain nothing from a game with the Shockers, but now it has everything to gain — a spot in the Sweet 16.
If Ellis shows up and doesn’t retreat into his passive shell, I think it’s KU’s game. The Jayhawks will have a definite advantage inside with Ellis, Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas. The smallish Shockers are going to have to create havoc with their defense, which I think they can do. WSU certainly has watched enough KU games this year to know the Jayhawks don’t handle fullcourt pressure or traps very well (KU had better not let Wayne Selden throw the ball in — he’s a human turnover in that area).
Of course the pressure is all on KU. The Jayhawks have been the above-the-fold newspaper story in the state for decades. The Shockers disappeared for a while after the MTXE days, but have resurfaced for good under Gregg Marshall.
I think KU will come out tight and Mason has to keep VanVleet in front of him, something he hasn’t done with some of the better guards he’s gone up against. I think the Shockers will come out fast and loose and the key is Baker. He’s been slumping and for WSU to win, he has to be in top form.
After an initial Shocker burst, I believe KU will settle down. I look for this to be a grind-it-out affair. My biggest concerns for WSU are the defensive matchups and the Jayhawks’ length. My concerns for KU are its inexplicable scoring droughts it goes through and its recent erratic 3-point shooting, though Friday it was tremendous from beyond the arc.
You just never know about this KU team. It has been the most difficult team to read since Bill Self has been at the helm.
When all is said and done, though, I like the ‘Hawks.
KU 69, Wichita State 64