OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—These Kansas seniors have been through a lot. Not one, but two stunning losses in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Then, the equally bitter disappointment of coming up one win short of the Final Four.
There’s only one way to go out.
A national championship.
The top-seeded Jayhawks (31-3) open play in the Midwest Regional against Portland State, an NCAA neophyte that is led by a 5-foot-6 guard and shouldn’t pose much of a threat to a powerful, seasoned team such as Kansas.
No 16th-seeded team has ever won a tournament game. Then again, the Jayhawks haven’t forgotten how No. 14 Bucknell stunned them in 2005. Or how Bradley, seeded 13th the following year, delivered another first-round knockout to the Jayhawks.
“It’s always going to stick in the back of your mind,” said senior forward Darnell Jackson, who got a firsthand look at both upsets. “You’re supposed to win those games.”
Last year, Kansas broke its first-round drought and came excruciatingly close to the Final Four, losing to UCLA in a regional final.
For the six seniors, this is the final chance to leave a mark everyone at Kansas will remember. The Jayhawks haven’t claimed a national championship since the Danny Manning-led team won it all 20 years ago, though there have been two trips to the championship game and two other runs to the national semifinals since then.
“We have a lot seniors,” Jackson said. “We all want to go out in style with a national championship. This is it. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing after this.”
If the Jayhawks are feeling an extra sense of urgency, they’re not showing it. The players looked relaxed and loose during an open workout at the Qwest Center, cheered on by at least 1,000 fans who already descended on Omaha from neighboring Kansas. Given the proximity of the two states, the Jayhawks should feel like the home team for the first two rounds of the tournament.
Of course, they’ll have to get by Portland State (23-9) to play a second game.
The Vikings earned their first trip to the NCAAs by winning the Big Sky Conference tournament, but it figures to be a rather brief trip. Kansas is a 22 1/2 -point favorite.
“It’s exciting for us to be here,” Portland State coach Ken Bone said. “(The players) worked hard for a couple of years, and now it’s finally paid off to where they’re having a good time with this. And I hope they enjoy it, because tomorrow morning might not be quite as fun.”
Diminutive Jeremiah Dominguez led the Vikings in scoring and assists, even though he’s nearly a half-foot shorter than anyone on Kansas’ roster. He’ll have to overcome his disadvantage in size, strength and athleticism for his team to have any shot at the greatest upset in NCAA history.
“It is a critical matchup, because Jeremiah is our best player,” Bone said. “Jeremiah will have his hands full, but one thing I know he will do is leave it on the court. He’s a tough kid. He’s a real competitive young man. He will come out and battle as hard as he can as long as he’s on the floor.”
But this game should be a mere blip for Kansas, a warmup for the tougher games to come. If the Jayhawks get by Portland State, they’ll move on to face the UNLV-Kent State winner. Wisconsin, USC or rival Kansas State could be lurking on the road to San Antonio.
The tournament is all about timing, and Kansas sure seems to be back on its game after a brief hiccup in the middle of the Big 12 schedule. The Jayhawks lost three of seven in one stretch—road games at Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State by a total of 13 points—but they’re on a seven-game winning streak and coming off an impressive win in the conference tourney last weekend.
“Right now,” guard Mario Chalmers said, “we’re a hard team to beat.”
Despite a top seed and impressive record, the Jayhawks feel a bit overlooked — even at their own regional. Much of the attention is going to the first-round matchup between a pair of freshmen stars, USC’s O.J. Mayo and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley.
“When people talk about the best teams, you usually hear them talk about North Carolina or Memphis, maybe Tennessee or UCLA,” Chambers said. “Not many people say Kansas is the best team in the nation. But in our hearts, we feel like we’re the best team.”
And what about that Beasley-Mayo showdown? The Jayhawks couldn’t care less.
“They’re both great players,” Jackson said. “But to win the game, you’ve got to have more than one great player. You’ve got to have a team.”
With all those seniors leading the way, Kansas should be just fine in the team department.