Kansas advanced — escaped depending on your perspective — past the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Wichita to move on to the Sweet 16.
The Jayhawks trailed early to No. 16 seed Penn before pulling away in the first round, then followed that up with a nail-biter over No. 8 seed Seton Hall on Saturday.
The Jayhawks have shown plenty of vulnerability through the first two games of the tournament, yet they came away with the only thing that matters — wins.
With how crazy March Madness has already proven to be — see UMBC — is it fair to consider Kansas as the title favorite going into the second weekend of the tournament?
Kansas getting Azubuike back
The return of Kansas’ prized enforcer down low was much-appreciated on Saturday night.
Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado delivered an all-time performance in the paint, dropping 23 points and pulling down 23 rebounds. Bill Self admitted after the game that without Azubuike’s play — he scored 10 points and 7 rebounds and was the biggest problem for Delgado — Kansas may have been sent packing.
Bill Self: "If Udoka doesn't come back from his injury we lose this game" #kubball
— Kansan Sports (@KansanSports) March 18, 2018
Azubuike is still not 100 percent back from an MCL injury suffered before the Big 12 Tournament. However, his health is on the rise and he should be available to play even more significant minutes in the Sweet 16.
Meanwhile, Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa got valuable experience spelling Azubuike for nearly four whole games.
That’s particularly true of De Sousa, who scored 16 points in a Big 12 Tournament title win over West Virginia.
While the preferred route, Kansas found a way to strengthen one of its weaknesses — its depth.
The Jayhawks are straight shooters
The value of field goal percentage has been amplified in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The biggest reason UMBC downed No. 1 overall seed Virginia? The Retrievers shot 54 percent from the field and 50 percent (12-of-24) on 3-pointers.
In Buffalo’s upset of Arizona in the first round, the Bulls mirrored UMBC by shooting 54 percent from the field and 50 percent (15-of-30) from deep.
Kansas is certainly one of the most talented teams in the tournament, but it also shoots the ball efficiently. The Jayhawks have shot 40 percent or better on 3-pointers in four of their last five games.
As Devonte’ Graham struggled against Seton Hall with only one field goal and 5 turnovers, Kansas still had four players reach double figures.
Azubuike also led the nation in field goal percentage at 77 percent, five points ahead of Alabama’s Donta Hall who was second nationally.
The road ahead
Kansas will face either Auburn or Clemson in the Sweet 16. Both teams present challenges to the Jayhawks, but Kansas will likely be favored in either matchup.
If Kansas gets to the Elite 8, either Duke, Syracuse or Michigan State awaits the Jayhawks.
Either matchup provides a legendary coaching matchup and, outside of a Cinderella run from Syracuse, will provide Knasas with perhaps its toughest test of the season.
The Jayhawks are far from shoe-ins into the Final Four. In fact, it took a few bounces in Kansas’ favor just to get out of Wichita.
But Kansas is getting closer and closer to full strength with Azubuike getting nearly a week off to recover. It’s unlikely Graham will have a performance as difficult as his showing against Seton Hall again.
A Jayhawks team with Graham clicking, Azubuike healthy and a slew of shooters to neutralize any disadvantages looks like a team capable of cutting down the nets.
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