State faces Kansas tonight
By Dave Skretta
ST. LOUIS — Tyshawn Taylor and the rest of the Kansas Jayhawks know better than to focus on seeds this time of year. Especially when it comes to those nasty No. 11s.
It was exactly one year ago that their bracket seemed to be opening up nicely for another Final Four run. The fourth and fifth seeds in their region went down in the second round, and the second and third quickly followed them out. That left VCU standing in the top-seeded Jayhawks’ way.
The scrappy No. 11 seeds wound up advancing to Houston.
Kansas wound up heading home.
“I’ve been saying all along, seeds don’t matter at this point,” Taylor said Thursday, on the eve of the second-seeded Jayhawks’ Midwest Regional semifinal against No. 11 seed North Carolina State.
“That team is capable of being a three or four seed,” Taylor added. “They didn’t have the best out-of-conference record, or even conference, but they’re a good team and they won some big games. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us. They’re going to come ready to play.”
Just like the Rams last year. And another lower seed, Northern Iowa, the year before that.
Kansas (29-6) hasn’t played a team seeded better than No. 9 since falling to second-seeded Michigan State in the Midwest Regional semifinals three years ago. That includes a blowout victory over No. 15 seed Detroit and a nip-and-tuck tussle with No. 10 seed Purdue last weekend.
“You can’t think of seeds,” said Connor Teahan, the lone remaining player from the 2008 title team. “Obviously the last two years the way we’ve been knocked out — what was VCU last year?”
It was a rhetorical question. Not a soul in the Kansas locker room at the Edward Jones Dome on Thursday afternoon needed to be reminded what VCU was seeded.
Just like they all know what number is attached to N.C. State.
“They’re playing really, really well,” Teahan said. “They’re not going to be intimidated by us, so we’re not going to be focused in on their seed at all.”
The Wolfpack (24-12) barely got into the tournament after a four-game losing streak late in their ACC schedule. They needed a strong run to the semifinals of their conference tournament even to have the chance to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Sweat they did, too. N.C. State was the last at-large team announced.
The momentum hasn’t slowed since they were revealed in the bracket. They rolled past San Diego State, a trendy pick to reach the round of 16, and then needed some clutch free throws down the stretch to knock off third-seeded Georgetown.
“We’re a team that just kept getting better,” said Mark Gottfried, who’s in his first season leading the Wolfpack. “We played really good teams. We didn’t win a lot of those games, and I just think our team began to figure out how to defend a little bit better, what we needed to run at certain times, and who needed to do what for us.”
Perhaps nobody has figured things out quite as well as C.J. Leslie — or Calvin, as Gottfried refers to him — who had been saddled with a reputation as a problem child.
The sophomore forward has openly credited Gottfried with making him grow up.
“He basically told me to step up and be a leader,” Leslie said. “Be a leader for our team, do the things that I need to do to make my team get better.”
It’s little surprise that the Wolfpack’s postseason run has coincided with some breakout performances from their best player. Leslie is averaging better than 18 points and shooting nearly 60 percent from the field over the past 10 games.
“I think we are a Cinderella team,” he said. “Nobody expected us to be here. We just keep believing in ourselves that we’re going to make it to at least the Final Four.”
That’s the expectation every season at Kansas.
Still, even coach Bill Self tried to temper high hopes this year.
The Jayhawks lost a bevy of talent from last season’s team, and the returning players included a former walk-on in Teahan and a couple of guys who’d spent most of their careers riding the bench.
Then March rolled around and the Jayhawks were ready for another NCAA tournament.
“One thing about coaching at my school is even though faces change, expectations don’t,” Self said. “They have great pride, and I really think between their ears and their effort and all those things have had as much to do with our team’s success as it has been raw talent.”
Kansas secured its eighth straight Big 12 regular-season title and was seeded third or better in the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year.
Not that seeds matter all that much.
The Jayhawks know that as well as anybody.
“I don’t think there’s really any upsets this time of year, like a lot of the so-called prognosticators think there is,” Self said. “Once you get to the weekend, all the teams are good.”