OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—The defining characteristic of Kansas’ 2008 national championship team was its killer instinct, the joy it took in stepping on an opponent and never letting it up. Those Jayhawks were hope crushers.
This year’s group? They’ve been a hope chest for opponents.
So far, except for two cases during the regular season, letting a beaten opponent up for air hasn’t hurt Kansas.
The Jayhawks have been able to crank it up when they need to, using a spurt or two, usually in the second half, to turn a tight game into another 15-point win. The latest letdown/runaway was Thursday night in the NCAA tournament’s first round, when Kansas allowed little Lehigh to believe in a dream before snuffing it out with a game-defining run.
Now’s the time for Kansas (33-2) to hit the hole shot and keep its foot down.
Pull it all together or it could be a short run for the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“Sometimes we play to the score instead of the opportunity,” Kansas guard Sherron Collins said Friday. “That’s something we’ve stressed, that killer instinct.”
The Jayhawks will likely need it against Northern Iowa (29-4) in the Midwest Regional’s second round on Saturday.
The Panthers are a bigger, more athletic, more defensive-minded version of Lehigh. In other words, Northern Iowa is a mid-major that could become a monster, the kind of team that could bump the mighty Jayhawks out of the bracket and keep right on going.
It doesn’t matter that Northern Iowa has never faced a No. 1-ranked team and no one from the Missouri Valley Conference has beaten one since 1962.
This could be the chance.
The Panthers aren’t afraid of the spotlight or facing bigger-name programs. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament five of the past seven years and were the only team to win a nonconference road game in the Big 12 this season, beating Iowa State to become the 1 in the conference’s 106-1 home record.
So if Kansas plays in spurts, lets off the gas for even a little bit, it could get sent home by a Missouri Valley team just like in 2006, when Bradley pulled out a 77-73 win in the first round.
And the Jayhawks know it.
“They’re not Cinderella,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They can beat any team in the country any given night. That’s not a Cinderella team. Lehigh, last night, that was more of a Cinderella. Northern Iowa, if they played a series with many, many teams across America, they’d have success win the series let alone the game.”
Northern Iowa is a tough matchup with a lane-clogging center in 7-footer Jordan Eglseder, interchangeable parts along the perimeter and an in-your-jersey defense that ranked second in nation, allowing just over 54 points per game. Like Kansas, the Panthers are deep, the seventh and eighth guys not much different from the first, nearly everyone able to shoot from 3-point range.
The combination worked in the first round.
Matching UNLV shot for shot, Northern Iowa survived a tense, back-and-forth game, making it to the second round for the first time in 20 years on Ali Farokhmanesh’s 25-foot 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left.
Now comes a chance at beating No. 1, the potential for a program-defining win.
The Panthers are ready.
“The opportunity that has presented itself for us is certainly an important moment for our program, no question,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “Not very often do you have the opportunity to play the best team in the country. We’ve got that opportunity tomorrow and it’s a challenge that our guys are excited about.”
History is on their side, too. Well, at least recent history.
The past three Valley teams to win first-round games in the NCAA tournament have gone on to the round of 16: Bradley and Wichita State in 2006, Southern Illinois a year later.
This is a little different.
Kansas has been No. 1 all but four weeks this season, lost just two games with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Jayhawks are deep, talented and explosive. If one of the stars, like Collins or Cole Aldrich, are having a bad night, there’s someone—or two or three someones—to pick up the load.
Spurty or not, they’re tough.
“They’re a pretty impressive team,” Northern Iowa forward Adam Koch said. “There are big guys inside, guards outside. They’ve go so much talent. They can do it all. There’s not much weakness in their game.”