Kansas guard Elijah Johnson spoke in somber tones late Friday night inside KU’s locker room until a reporter asked about North Carolina. Immediately, Johnson perked up.
“I think it’s good,” Johnson said. “I’m glad we get to play their program so much.”
Bill Self vs. Roy Williams, Round 3, will take place inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon and share many of the same themes of the first two meetings. The Jayhawks are coming off a survival win, this one over No. 16 seed Western Kentucky, 64-57, on Friday night.
A year ago, Kansas won a slop-fest against North Carolina State before getting Roy’s boys in the Elite Eight. In 2008, Kansas just barely survived Stephen Curry and Davidson before facing Williams in the Final Four.
Both times, the Jayhawks relaxed and beat the tar out of their old coach.
In many ways, what Kansas was able to do on Friday night was what escaped some of Williams’ best teams in Lawrence.
Sometimes Self wins ugly.
This kind of ugly, though, against a No. 16 seed, puts the nation’s antennas up, as well it should. But if you were surprised by what took place on Friday, then you have not watched much of Kansas this year, or any other year for that matter.
This Kansas team played like the best in the country in December, won some ugly games early on in the Big 12 and then completely lost its way during a three-game losing streak in early February that included a loss at Big 12 basement-dweller TCU.
Kansas somehow regained its confidence after that and won 10 of 11 to finish the season, looking dominant again last weekend at the Big 12 tournament.
Those pesky mid-majors just always seem to trouble Self.
The killer B's—Bucknell and Bradley—knocked Kansas out in the round of 64 in back-to-back years, in 2005 and 2006.
Northern Iowa and Ali Farokhmanesh sent top overall seed Kansas home in 2010, and the next season, it was Shaka Smart’s VCU in the Elite Eight. Even in 2008, Davidson was the only team until Memphis to really make the Jayhawks sweat.
“It’s just part of human nature to kind of not be as prepared for a smaller team,” Johnson said.
It has also become part of nature for the Kansas program to have point guard play that can scare the bejesus out of its fanbase.
Johnson and the KU guards dealt with pressure like they had never seen it on their way to 17 turnovers against Western Kentucky.
That's what troubles KU today.
This is nothing new either, as Johnson has struggled all season adapting to the point guard role.
He also had his struggles last season. Those were mostly with his shot, and then he became KU’s clutch scorer in the tournament. He's also responded at times this year, including a 39-point game at Iowa State that came out of nowhere.
Kansas is just the team that sometimes you cannot explain. Of course, that's pretty much every team in contention for the title. Even favorite Louisville lost three straight this year.
The Jayhawks are the team with the most experience putting the slop behind them and moving on. The four seniors in the starting lineup all witnessed what ugly can do in 2012.
Those Jayhawks kept flirting with an early exit, but Johnson’s jumper and their defense kept the journey going.
“This tournament is about defense, not offense,” Johnson said. “Anybody can score, but everybody can’t guard.”
Kansas beat N.C. State last year in the Sweet 16 without making more than two shots outside of five feet. They shot 24 percent from three on their way to the title game.
And that kind of inaccuracy was repeated against Western Kentucky, as Kansas missed all six three-point attempts and hit only one shot outside of two feet.
“That was our seven-footer,” Self said.
That seven-footer, Jeff Withey, is the reason the Jayhawks are still playing.
The Hilltoppers did not get the memo to stay away from the nation’s leading shot-blocker. Withey controlled the game with his defense, blocking seven shots and altering many others. After leading at halftime by one, Western Kentucky got Withey’ed away in the second half when it made only 8-of-39 shots.
Withey also carried KU’s offense, which refused to make a jump shot. The big man scored 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
“Whenever you can get a block, it definitely translates into offense,” Withey said. “It gives you extra energy and kind gives you a little power over your opponent.”
Withey has now blocked 38 shots in KU’s last seven tournament games, and he owns the NCAA tournament record with 31 blocks in a single tournament.
Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Withey owned March last year, and they were the keys to their teams playing for the national championship.
Should the Jayhawks still be considered a national-title contender?
This Kansas team also has a chance to advance because of Withey.
His defense is that dominant.
But it’s tough to argue that the Jayhawks are a legitimate national title contender after a stinker like Western Kentucky, just as it was Thursday for Gonzaga after barely beating Southern.
Kansas needs better play out of Johnson and backup point guard Naadir Tharpe. The Jayhawks need to hit a jump shot at some point. They also need something from future lottery pick Ben McLemore, who made only 2-of-5 shots and was a non-factor for most of the game.
Senior guard Travis Releford said McLemore came to his teammates early on against WKU and said he needed help.
“He’s never been in this type of situation before or this type of stage,” Releford said. “He was probably a little nervous, but now that the game is out of the way, he made a few plays at the end to help us out, he can relax and go to the next game.”
That next game is Williams’ Tar Heels, a team that has made 24 threes in its last two games and is more than content with staying outside of Withey’s zone.
Counting out Self, Withey and the Jayhawks just because of one ugly game is ignoring history. And history tells us a little Roy usually makes Kansas right again.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.