Why KU's path to a Final Four is difficult, yet sort of perfect for this year's team

By Jesse Newell jnewell@kcstar.com

There were times this season when I argued that there might not be much difference between Kansas getting a 1 or a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That, as things turned out, was incorrect.

KU's path to its first Final Four since 2012 released Sunday looks big and bad and scary at first glance. There are three members of the Champions Classic — including Duke and Michigan State — in KU's Midwest Region, and only one will be able to advance to San Antonio.

So yeah. That sticks out right away.

"If Michigan State and Duke play well, they would be two of the heaviest favorites to win the national championship," KU coach Bill Self said.

Yet KU has one huge advantage over both. The Jayhawks are on the opposite side of the draw, meaning they cannot play Michigan State and Duke. They can only play one.

And that's the most important thing to look at when trying to gauge KU's chances of extending this year's NCAA Tournament run to a third week.

The statistical projections out there reflect this. FiveThirtyEight, for example, has KU at 31 percent to advance to the Final Four, with Duke at 29 percent and Michigan State at 25.

If we look at predictive metrics like KenPom and Sagarin, both Duke and Michigan State rank higher than KU. But their paths are tougher because they might have to face each other and then the Jayhawks.

It's a long way of saying: KU's bracket isn't easy, but it's not as difficult as first appearances either.

 

The opening game will be fascinating. Penn, at 127th in KenPom, is the highest-rated 16 seed in the last six seasons. The Quakers limit threes well, which matches up directly with KU's offensive strength. They also fire away from deep, making them a dangerous high-variance team — capable of losing by 40 or winning by one, depending on the shooting luck Thursday.

Should KU advance, it'd likely be about a five- or six-point favorite over eighth-seeded Seton Hall (if the Pirates beat ninth-seeded N.C. State), which also could make for a more competitive game than KU fans would prefer from a second-round opponent.

The softest part of the Jayhawks' draw potentially comes in the Sweet 16. Auburn is not an overwhelming 4 seed, especially with four losses in its last six games. Clemson is decent for a 5, but again, not a team that stands out statistically as underseeded.

A win there would set up some great drama. The Jayhawks would almost certainly play either Duke or Michigan State, and if that happened, they'd play an unfamiliar role as a 1 seed.

KU, most likely, would be the betting underdog.

Perhaps that wouldn't be terrible for this team, which is 3-1 in games when it hasn't been favored. The pressure to advance past the Elite Eight round might not be as severe based on expectations, and this KU roster also has seemed to play well in the moments it has been doubted most.

When The Streak was in serious jeopardy with the Jayhawks a game back in the league standings, they won their next five. When the team had lower expectations in the Big 12 Tournament after losing Udoka Azubuike last week to a knee injury, it won the next three games by double digits.

There are a lot of ifs here, but if KU can get to that regional final, I can't help but think the Jayhawks would embrace the opportunity to prove themselves once again.

"We believe in each other. We believe in our coaching staff," KU guard Devonté Graham said.

National pundits aren't likely to be as confident about KU's chances.

And, from being around the Jayhawks all season, I don't think they'd want it any other way.

 


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