This time last year, the Kansas Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed and a heavy favorite to make it all the way to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament.
They ended up losing to the Cinderella VCU Rams in the Elite Eight, a defeat that nobody saw coming.
This year, Kansas is a No. 2 seed and the general consensus is that this Jayhawks team is not as good as last year's Jayhawks team. Nevertheless, they're getting plenty of respect from the experts, some of whom think Kansas has a good shot of going all the way to the Final Four.
The key roadblock in Kansas' road to the Final Four is a potential matchup against North Carolina. In all likelihood, the Jayhawks are going to have to go through the Tar Heels to make it to the Final Four, and the experts are split on the idea.
ESPN's Jay Bilas, for example, sees Kansas and North Carolina meeting up in the Elite Eight, but he doesn't think the Jayhawks would match up well enough against the Tar Heels to beat them:
North Carolina has the size to match Kansas, and the depth to win. Last time these two met in the NCAA tournament, Kansas rolled the Heels. This time, Roy Williams has the better team and should move past Kansas.
Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com is not so sure. For him, the deal-breaker concerning the Tar Heels is John Henson's wounded wrist, which kept him out of action in the final two games of the ACC Tournament.
If Henson's wrist isn't at full strength, Doyel thinks the Midwest Region will go to Kansas by default:
I'm not sure about John Henson's wrist. The Tar Heels act like he'll play in the NCAA tourney, and maybe he will. But I'm not sure. And because I'm not sure, I'm going with Kansas—which is good enough to win whether Henson is there or not. So it says right here that Kansas, with the best player in this regional in Thomas Robinson, advances to New Orleans.
Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated doesn't think Kansas will have to worry about North Carolina. He thinks the Jayhawks will handle their own business, and he thinks they'll catch a break with North Carolina suffering an upset:
Bill Self's Jayhawks have had a slew of tourney misfortune when faced with capable mid-majors...so it's entirely possible that Saint Mary's or Belmont (who I'm picking to reach the Sweet 16) could torment them this year. But provided Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor get through the first two rounds they'll be at a distinct advantage playing in partisan St. Louis, and they'll catch a break when Creighton or Michigan takes down North Carolina.
Of course, Kansas' fate is not directly tied to that of North Carolina. If the Jayhawks are going to make a run through the NCAA tournament, it will be because they're a great team in their own right, not just a better team than the Tar Heels.
And the Jayhawks are a great team, for the record. They fell short in the Big 12 tournament, but John Feinstein of The Washington Post said it best when he wrote that "the Jayhawks have probably improved more start-to-finish than any team in the country."
You can see where he's coming from. The Jayhawks suffered some key losses early in the season, but they only lost two of their final 21 games in the regular season. Along the way, Thomas Robinson established himself as one of the country's most outstanding players.
Thanks in large part to Robinson, Kansas is able to do more damage in the paint than most teams, and the thinking is that this is what will get the Jayhawks to the Final Four.
Sean Keeler of Fox Sports Kansas City put it this way:
Few teams in the country have a better post scoring tandem than Robinson and [Jeff] Withey. Taylor’s played in nine NCAA tourney games and won’t be fazed by much. A veteran point guard and two reliable bigs are a nice problem to have in March.
However, Keeler also noted that this Kansas team is far from perfect:
Other than Robinson and Taylor, this might be one of the least-athletic teams that Self has ever fielded in Lawrence. Self’s feast-or-famine history in the tournament is well-documented. Last year, the Jayhawks rolled all the way to the regional final. But if they run into a hot mid-major this year, it could mean trouble.
In his tournament preview for Kansas, ESPN's Joe Lunardi broke down Kansas' weaknesses in much more detail. As strong as Kansas is around the bucket, it doesn't shoot the ball particularly well. Lunardi says that this is going to be an issue if the Jayhawks get down early and they "start to settle" for jumpers.
So in a nutshell, the experts would like everyone to know that North Carolina is very much on the radar when it comes to Kansas' NCAA tournament outlook, Robinson will have to come up big, Self will have to motivate his team better than he has in the past, and the Jayhawks are going to have to be better than advertised when it comes to knocking down shots.
What's clear one way or another is that the bar is pretty high for this Kansas team. The Tar Heels are a chief concern, but the Jayhawks will have to at least make it to the Elite Eight before they can worry about meeting North Carolina face to face. If Kansas makes it that far, there's little reason to think it won't be able to go further.
So for now, things are looking pretty good for the Jayhawks.
Key words: "for now."