Kansas almost let Georgetown and New Mexico off the hook.
That’s right. Friday night, in the next to last game to be completed in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the No. 1 seed in the South flirted with history. With the home crowd decked out in blue and holding its breath until the final minute, Kansas survived with a 64-57 victory over an athletic and aggressive Western Kentucky team.
No one wants to become that first No. 1 in NCAA history to stumble. It would have been extremely embarrassing for Kansas since Jayhawk fans had gobbled up the majority of tickets for the session and were undoubtedly gloating over the fact No. 4 Kansas State had been upset earlier in the day at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The Wildcats fell to No. 13 seed – and First Four participant – LaSalle.
Gonzaga, No. 1 in the West, had an equally close call Thursday before beating Southern University 64-58. But Louisville and Indiana, the other No. 1 seeds, cruised to lopsided victories to prevent that ultimate headline assigned to a No. 16 seed.
Kansas coach Bill Self said his team had one of its best weeks of practice this season. The Jayhawks had been loose after winning the Big 12 Conference championship with a third victory this season over a talented Kansas State team. But that changed before the game Friday night.
“There was a little bit different feel in the locker room before the game,” Self said. “I actually noticed it and everything. We were a little tight. Sometimes playing at home I think puts more pressure on you in certain ways than maybe getting away, that kind of stuff. So we didn't respond real well to the advantages we had.”
And by the time the Jayhawks took the floor they knew No. 14 Harvard had upset No. 3 New Mexico in the West on Thursday and No. 2 Georgetown, in KU’s South bracket, had been stunned by Florida Gulf Coast 78-68.
Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield may be the most envied man in America today. Enfield, 43 woke up Saturday morning as the only Division I coach with an undefeated record in the NCAA tournament – and he is married to a supermodel.
“I told our team before the game that Georgetown is ranked eighth in the country,” Enfield said, “but after you get out on the court for two or three minutes you're going to realize that you're just as good if not better than this team, and we did that.”
If you hadn’t heard of Florida Gulf Coast before this weekend, don’t feel bad. The university itself just opened in Fort Myers in 1997 and the long transition to Division I was just completed two years ago. The Atlantic Sun champions beat Miami early in the season, before the Hurricanes looked like contenders in the Atlantic Coast Conference and long before many people were paying attention to the college basketball season. The Eagles also played a decent game against Duke.
While Enfield’s players were celebrating their monumental victory, the Hoyas had their faces buried in towels after shooting 37.5 percent. The regular season co-champions from the mighty Big East have now failed to advance beyond the round of 16 the past six seasons.
“More than anyone on earth, I’ve tried to analyze it, think about it, look at it and think about what we should do differently,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “And I don’t know.”
New Mexico coach Steve Alford understands that feeling.
“It's always a setback,” Alford said. “You never like ending your season. I've got a group of guys in the locker room that played extremely hard and well all year long. We have had a tremendous year.
“We lost here in the second round. It doesn't taste well; it doesn't sit well. We got the whole starting five back, so we’ve got to learn from it and we've got to turn some of these weaknesses into strengths, whether that's jump shooting, spot shooting, shots off the bounce. We got a lot of work to do here in the off-season.”
Harvard certainly isn’t an unknown school like Florida Gulf Coast. But the interesting part of the story for the Crimson is that coach Tommy Amaker led his team to victory in the tournament without Jeremy Lin on the team and after the squad lost its two co-captains before the season in part of an academic scandal that involved more than 100 students.
That dropped expectations at Harvard, for everyone except Amaker. And freshman point guard Siyani Chambers took care of the leadership task on the floor all season long.
“It's just incredible,” Harvard’s Wesley Saunders said. “This is the type of thing you dream about in your backyard playing around and imagining this situation happening. And just for it to actually happen now is incredible. With this group of guys, I wouldn't rather do it with anybody else. It was just wonderful.”
The most amazing weekend in sports continues Saturday and by the end of the day Sunday the original field of 68 will be trimmed to the Sweet 16.
Harvard tries to take the next step Saturday against No. 6 Arizona. Florida Gulf Coast plays No. 7 San Diego State on Sunday. Those are the two lowest seeds remaining in the field of 32. There are 22 teams from the top eight seeds remaining. Virginia Commonwealth, which meets No. 4 Michigan Saturday in one of the more intriguing third-round games, is the only No. 5 seed to survive. Oregon, California and Ole Miss all advanced as No. 12 seeds.
On the top line Saturday, Louisville plays No. 8 Colorado State and Gonzaga plays No. 9 Wichita State. Sunday, Indiana takes on a Temple team that has proved all season it can keep up with – if not defeat – the big-time, high-ranked programs such as Syracuse and Kansas.
But the most pressure may be on Kansas again as the Jayhawks play No. 8 North Carolina and former KU coach Roy Williams in Kansas City. The Tar Heels played an uneven game Friday but got past Villanova 78-71 to give Williams career victory No. 700. His players presented him with a North Carolina jersey with the No. 700 on it in the locker room.
|North Carolina coach Roy Williams goes for No. 701 against his old school|
“You know, when something like that happens, you usually like to have it happen at home where all your family and friends can be there,” Williams said. “If I was going to choose another place, this place was a fantastic place for 15 years in my life. I didn't even say one word to my staff, much less the players.”
And no one will have to mention the pairing to the fans in Kansas City, who saw the potential matchup between the fabled programs as soon as the brackets were announced Selection Sunday.
The victory over Western Kentucky improved the Jayhawks’ record to 30-5 making Kansas the first team in NCAA history to record four consecutive 30-win seasons. It was all-time victory number 2,100 for Kansas, and Self now is one win shy of 300 since replacing Williams in 2003.
Kansas trails only Kentucky (2,111) in all-time victories. North Carolina is third with 2,090.
Williams has lost to Kansas in the NCAA tournament twice since 2008. And the rivalry between these two programs goes back to the 1957 NCAA championship game, when the Tar Heels defeated Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team – in Kansas City.
“I think everybody comes ready to play,” Kansas guard Elijah Johnson said. “There's going to be so much juice in the building. Roy is coming back. There's going to be a lot of fans pumped up. We'll be pumped up. We got the first one out of the way, like coach said, so we're a little looser now. I think it will be a different attitude in the locker room before the game.”