OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—Talk about an eerie coincidence.
Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, is facing nearly the exact circumstance as one of the most embarrassing losses in the storied program’s history.
When the top-ranked Jayhawks (32-2) open the NCAA tournament Thursday against Lehigh, it’ll look and feel a whole lot like 2005—when they lost to Bucknell in the first round.
In the same arena, Oklahoma City’s Ford Center. Against the Patriot League champion. In a season where they started as the No. 1 team. On the same date, March 18. In the late game of the evening session. Right after Northern Iowa plays its first game.
Cue the creepy music? Nah. Different teams, different circumstances, too much negativity to even bring it up.
“I may have mentioned it one time, on us being ready,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Wednesday. “If you talk about that kind of stuff a lot, then you’re dwelling on the negatives instead of thinking positive the whole time.”
This year’s Kansas team and the one in 2005 don’t have a lot in common.
The 2005 team opened the season at No. 1 and was a third seed in the NCAA tournament, so they certainly weren’t slouches. They had talented players, too, Wayne Simien among them.
But that team isn’t in the same league as this year’s.
The 2010 bunch is flowing-over talented, led by Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, who won a national championship together two years ago. The freshman class is one of the best Self has had in his seven years in Lawrence and it came on the heels of another exceptional class that included the Morris twins, Marcus and Morris, and point guard Tyshawn Taylor.
The 2005 team also couldn’t shoot from the outside. Bucknell sank into a funky zone and dared the Jayhawks to miss, which they did over and over.
The new-version Jayhawks can hit from anywhere, rotating in bench guys like Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed who are warmed up as soon as their feet hit the floor in the morning.
This year’s team has history on its side, too.
They’re a No. 1 seed, not a No. 3. Big deal? Well, since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 1 seeds are 100-0.
And there’s this: Kansas has commander-in-chief backing.
President Barack Obama, the man who predicted North Carolina’s title last year, has inked in the Jayhawks at the top of the executive bracket.
“We worked hard to get here and now we have to just take it to the next level,” Taylor said. “These next two games are the most important of the season. Now that we’ve got the No. 1 seed, we’ve got to prove we’re the No. 1 team.”
Stacked odds or not, Lehigh (22-10) has to go into the Midwest regional game thinking it has a chance. Go in intimidated against the nation’s top-ranked team, the Mountain Hawks will get steamrolled in the first five minutes, another No. 16 seed wiped from the slate.
One chance Lehigh might have at making history: 3-point shooting.
Kansas’ lone weakness is defending the perimeter and the Mountain Hawks are superb from beyond the arc, shooting 40 percent this season. Start dropping in bombs or have freshman sharpshooter C.J. McCollum—the Patriot League’s player of the year—go on a Stephen Curry-like spree, Lehigh might have a chance.
“We know they shoot a lot of 3s and 3s can keep a team in the game,” Taylor said.
Even then, it’ll be tough. What the Mountain Hawks really need is for Kansas to have a clunker.
It could happen; the Jayhawks still haven’t put together a full game this season. They’ve come close—against Temple, the first game against K-State, a couple others—but most of the season they’ve been like a reliable old radio: occasional static, but able to tune in when it counts.
For the Mountain Hawks to circle around fate, they’ll have to play their best game of the season and hope Kansas doesn’t get dialed in.
“We’ve played some pretty good teams this year—Dayton, Richmond—but Kansas is so deep we probably haven’t seen a team exactly like them,” Lehigh guard Marquis Hall. “We’ve played against a lot of different teams and lot of different styles, so I think we’ll be prepared.”
If not, there’s always fate.
Bucknell did it, against this same program, no less, so why not Lehigh?
The Mountain Hawks haven’t really talked about what happened five years ago, but it does give them at least a glimmer of hope.
“Although the odds may be stacked against and history doesn’t favor us, we have the type of combination of talent and character that could create a special moment and a special opportunity in this tournament, which obviously what March Madness is all about,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said.