The Kansas Jayhawks haven’t reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament since 2018, when Devonte’ Graham and company led coach Bill Self’s group to the Final Four.
While that stretch includes just two tournaments (2020’s was canceled due to Covid-19), it’s not often the Jayhawks bow out of the Big Dance in the first weekend with such frequency.
Against the Creighton Bluejays on Saturday, however, KU has an opportunity build on arguably its best stretch of the season and to return to the second weekend.
Kansas has won six games in a row, including a pulverization of Texas Southern in the first round of the tournament, something it hasn’t done since winning eight in a row at the end of nonconference play and very start of the Big 12 season. Now, the Jayhawks have to stay focused and continue that momentum against a wounded Creighton team.
“I’ve actually thought this team has handled that type of pressure for the most part pretty well,” Self said. “Regardless of how loose you hope to be, there’s still going to be moments where you play tight. That’s natural. But I think for the most part this team has done a pretty good job of that.”
KU won’t have to battle one of Creighton’s best players this weekend, with sophomore center Ryan Kalkbrenner out due to a knee injury he suffered against San Diego State.
While that’s a major blow to the Bluejays and alters who the Jayhawks will be facing, it doesn’t change what Self expects Creighton’s strategy to be.
“We will prepare that they will run the same stuff, because we have no idea what they’ll run if they don’t,” Self said. “We may prepare that they may play a different lineup and maybe slide guys up a spot to play smaller or something like that. But as far as us knowing what they’ll do in the scouting, I think the biggest thing is to rely on principles as much as anything else.”
One thing the Jayhawks do have to be prepared for is a small-ball lineup since the Bluejays will be without their 7-foot-1 center. Self said there are pros and cons to how KU matches up with smaller lineups.
“There’s that old adage, make them adjust to you more than you adjust to them,” Self said. “And if they decide to do that, then how do we take advantage of them being small? And then how do we guard them when they are small? And that will be a big question with us, because, obviously, that would put David on the perimeter a lot.”
Kansas has found success lately going with a smaller lineup, keeping two smaller guards on the floor at the same time along with some combination of wings and a big man. That has been an especially successful game plan thanks to the emergence of senior guard Remy Martin in the last two weeks. His hot streak has coincided directly with the Jayhawks’ stellar postseason run, which includes three double-figure wins, a Big 12 Championship tournament title and now an NCAA tournament win.
On Friday, sophomore guard Joseph Yesufu expanded on why the smaller lineup has helped KU as of late.
“We play faster. All our guards are really quick. And having two point guards on the floor makes it easier for us to create on the floor,” Yesufu said. “And I feel like we gel more. We get guys open. It’s easier for us to get in the paint. I feel like it’s great for us.”
These two teams faced off last season, a one-point Kansas win at Allen Fieldhouse, but it’s a far different Creighton team that will take the floor this time around due to several transfers, among other roster changes.
Sophomore forward Jalen Wilson, who was the hero of that game for the Jayhawks, said that he know the Bluejays will be ready for this matchup regardless of how different the lineup has looked year to year.
“They’re a really good team that’s well coached. And last year, it went down to the very last shot,” Wilson said. “I know there’s a couple new faces for their team, but they’re always going to have the same chip that they did last year, and also the same coach. So it’s always going to be a tough game with them.”
The objective is simple for KU this weekend: defeat Creighton and make it to the Sweet 16 in Chicago. And that task is even more favorable to the Jayhawks with Kalkbrenner out.
Now, they have 40 minutes of game time to take advantage of that hole in the Bluejays’ lineup.
Click below to hear what Bill Self and the Jayhawks had to say ahead of their NCAA tournament game versus Creighton.