KU will open NCAA Tournament in Wichita as top seed in Midwest and No. 3 overall

By Gary Bedore gbedore@kcstar.com

Kansas, which has earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight postseason, won’t have to travel far in its quest to reach the 2018 Final Four.

The Jayhawks — who notched the third overall seed behind Virginia and Villanova and ahead of Xavier — will open the tourney against 16th-seeded Penn (24-8) of the Ivy League in a first-round contest at 1 p.m. Thursday at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita.

If KU (27-7) wins Thursday, it will meet either No. 8 seed Seton Hall (21-11) or No. 9 North Carolina State (21-11) on Saturday for the right to advance to the regional semifinals March 23 in Omaha, Neb.

“We’ve never been to Wichita (for NCAA action). Certainly we look forward to doing that,” KU coach Bill Self said Sunday night. “If we’re fortunate enough to win two games, Omaha … that is kind of a home-away-from-home for us in the tournament. I don’t know how many times we’ve been up there. It’s got to be at least four.

“We should be familiar with a city in our state and we should be familiar with playing somewhere else if we are fortunate enough to advance that far,” Self added.

The Jayhawks went 1-1 in 2015, losing to Wichita State, and 2-0 in 2012 and 2008 in NCAA action in Omaha for a 5-1 record. Like Self said, the Jayhawks have not played a NCAA game in Wichita during the 15-year Self era.

“I really thought after we won last night (versus West Virginia in the Big 12 final) we’d be in Omaha,” Self said. “I thought we’d be in the Midwest. The first-round sites are strictly geographic for many of the teams. We anticipated last night we’d go to Wichita and then be in the Midwest.”

Of Penn, Self joked: “I told our guys, the thing about it is, from an academic standpoint, thank God we’re not competing against them in those areas. Certainly we’ll have great respect for them. We’ll know more after we watch film here in the next couple hours.”

He recalled that KU barely defeated Ivy League member Cornell 71-66 on Jan. 6, 2010, at Allen Fieldhouse. Cornell at the time was led by current Penn coach Steve Donahue.

“It was a one-possession game,” Self said. “Sherron (Collins) got an and-one when we were down by one with 20 seconds left.”

In studying the bracket, KU senior point guard Devonté Graham quickly noticed a possible Saturday opponent. The Raleigh, N.C., native chose KU in recruiting over runner-up North Carolina State.

“Playing against them would be fun for me,” Graham said, although cautioning, “we’ve got to focus on Penn and getting that ‘W’ first.”

He added of the Wolfpack: “I know a lot of them, play with them during the summertime when I go home. So I got a lot of friends on that team. Some of them already texted me.”

Self said he definitely noticed that the tournament committee could have placed Missouri or Wichita State in the Jayhawks’ path. Instead, No. 8 seed Missouri is in the West Regional and No. 4 WSU is in the East.

“I actually went through and looked at what the bracketology and what Jerry Palm (of CBSSports.com) said. Basically, teams that were on the 8-9 line were basically the teams they had on the 8-9 line too. So obviously, if we were a 1, it would be a 1-in-4 chance that we could be playing Missouri. And also, I felt like it would be a 1-in-4 chance we'd be playing Wichita State, I mean, if we were able to advance because I felt like they'd be on the 4 line,” Self said. “Those are things all coaches do — try to guess. So certainly, I thought that was a possibility.”

Self was asked by The Star after his news conference if he was pleased KU won’t be matched against one or both of those squads in the early rounds.

“I don’t know if that would be a huge distraction, but it would be something that would take away from the game I think,” Self said.

Self said the Jayhawks hoped to have injured center Udoka Azubuike available for the Penn game.

“He’s doing well,” Self said of the 7-foot sophomore who missed the Big 12 Tournament because of a sprained left knee ligament. “He did a workout on the court today. It was a one-on-zero. It was very light, not anything that would tell us he’s going to practice tomorrow or anything like that.

“His recovery he has made so far has been even more than what the doctors and trainers originally thought it would be. We are very, very optimistic that we can have him this weekend. Whether or not we do on Thursday … with this type injury, 48 hours makes a big difference. Hopefully he can play some Thursday. If we are fortunate enough to advance we are more confident he could be used on Saturday.”

Self said the fact freshman forward Silvio De Sousa played well in the Big 12 Tournament would not factor into possibly resting Azubuike.

“We wouldn’t put him out there before he is ready anyway,” Self said of Azubuike, “but it could weigh into our decision with the mindset thinking we have to have him in a certain situation (during the game). I thought Silvio played well enough that we should have confidence using Silvio in pressure situations that we would think we needed Doke to be in all the time.”

Self said “that would be up to trainers and doctors,” when asked if Azubuike could play at less than 100 percent. “I don’t know he can be 100 percent. There’s a lot of guys who sprain an ankle and are not 100 percent but you still play (if) there’s no risk of hurting it more, just (being) sore. That’d be a doctor’s call or trainer’s call, not mine.”

Self said it’s possible De Sousa could start the Penn game ahead of Mitch Lightfoot, who started the three Big 12 Tournament games.

“I’ll probably reserve that for practice to see,” Self said. “Silvio, obviously, was much more effective than Mitch because it was at least strength versus strength when he and (West Virginia’s Sagaba) Konate were guarding each other. I think that was a bad matchup for Mitch. So I want to wait to see how that plays out.

“Silvio does not deserve the start ahead of Mitch based on what Mitch has contributed to us all year long, but it may be better for our team if he does. But I've got to watch tape and see how practice goes on Monday and Tuesday first.”

Self said the Jayhawks’ 1 p.m. start time would not affect the team’s travel plans. KU figures to leave for Wichita after a Tuesday afternoon practice in Lawrence so the Jayhawks “can eat dinner” in Wichita, he noted.

“I’ll look at it from a positive standpoint. If we’re successful (at 1 p.m.) we can go to bed earlier,” Self said. “… I really don’t think the starting time makes much difference. But we will be playing one of the very first games in the tournament. So there will not be time for us to sit around and watch anybody else play before we play which is going to be a little bit different.”

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