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Kansas: NCAA title favorite or early casualty?


Highlights

All those Jayhawks’ Big 12 titles seldom lead to the Final Four.

Odds, geography, leadership favor Kansas this year.

Bill Self thinks it might help to play big-name teams.

Moments after the NCAA Tournament field was revealed, Las Vegas oddsmakers made Kansas the favorite to win it all.

Don’t these guys ever learn?

The 13-time defending Big 12 regular-season champions are notorious underachievers in March. In Bill Self’s 15 years, the Jayhawks have made five first-week exits, including three as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. They also have suffered five Elite Eight losses, reached the Final Four just twice and won one national championship.

“We’ve had notable disappointments. We’ve also advanced a long ways a lot of times,” Self said, “and I don’t know how you knock our year-over-year consistency.”

Yet when a team is seeded No. 1 — seven times — or No. 2 or 3 — five times — it’s discouraging to be 2-5 in the Elite Eight. Under Self, the Jayhawks also are 2-7 in their attempts to reach the Final Four from the Sweet 16.

“It’s not easy, no matter what program you’re talking about,” Self said. “In looking back, there have been times we played too tight or lost our focus a bit.

“You’ve got to have fun, stay loose, keep things fresh and play with a purpose.”

When Kansas lost its Big 12 Tournament opener against TCU last week, cynics suggested the Jayhawks were warming up for their next March collapse.

“I don’t know if that was a bad thing,” Self said of the loss to the Horned Frogs. “It gave us a chance to catch our breath, sharpen our focus and tighten up some things on the court.”

He even speculated that Kansas, a No. 1 NCAA seed for the seventh time in 11 years, might be better prepared mentally for a deep run because the Midwest bracket is so stacked.

“In the past you could say we’ve been dogged by the Missouri Valley, beaten by Lehigh, but this year if we’re fortunate to advance, it looks like we’ll be facing power conference teams all the way.

“If we win our opener, we get either Miami, which has beaten North Carolina and Duke, or Michigan State and Tom Izzo, who have been to how many Final Fours? Further on down, you’ve got Louisville, Purdue, Oregon and Iowa State in this region. There’s no chance we lose our focus if we’re playing those teams.”

Incredibly, Self’s KU teams have never been worse than a No. 4 seed. Izzo’s Spartans, in contrast, have been worse than a No. 4 seed nine times during Self’s reign.

Kansas opens Friday against the North Carolina Central-UC Davis winner. Even that matchup makes Self a tad nervous.

“I do think we’ll see a 16 beat a 1, but I certainly hope it’s not this year,” he said. “You don’t have as many dominant teams as you had 15 to 20 years ago. The difference between 5s and 12s, 3s and 10s, 1s and 5s is probably less now than it’s ever been. We’ve seen 15s beat 2s, and the difference between 1s and 2s is miniscule. So why wouldn’t a 16 win? I just hope it’s postponed for another year.”

Vegas’ updated odds have Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and defending national champ Villanova each around 7-to-1 to win the national title. All but the Blue Devils are top seeds. Yet over the past 20 years, just 40 percent (32 of 80) of No. 1 seeds have even reached the Final Four.

The Jayhawks really have no excuses this year. They have a terrific senior point guard, Frank Mason, who’s a finalist for the Wooden Award. They also have a future top-of-the-lottery NBA pick, Josh Jackson. Their potential downfall might be a lack of depth up front, but any weaknesses are balanced by the benefits of geography. KU’s road to the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., runs through Tulsa, Okla., and Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s nice to stay in the region, keep the travel simple and know you’ll have your fans there,” Self said. “You’ve still got to play well.”



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