SALT LAKE CITY — The Kansas Jayhawks made light work of the Northeastern Huskies in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament, cruising past their foes from the CAA 87-53.
With the opening round in their rear view, the inexperienced Jayhawks now turn their attention to Auburn, the five seed in the Midwest region and a winner of nine straight games.
Though, to call Kansas inexperienced without a caveat isn’t doing the team justice. In terms of NCAA tournament experience, the team barely has any of it, with only junior forward Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett returning from last year’s Final Four team, at least in terms of actual contributors. However, this is a group that has grown up over the course of the year and has been relied on to make plays constantly despite being relatively young.
“It’s been great so far,” freshman guard Quentin Grimes said. “All the freshmen are really enjoying it now [that] we have that first game out of the way. Now we can focus on just playing basketball and just for the ultimate title, get to the Final Four and hopefully just win every game.”
Grimes and guard Devon Dotson are essentially freshmen only in name at this point, having started every game of the season. While the tournament is a new experience for a starting group that made their collective and individual debuts in the big dance on Thursday, tough games and big moments aren’t as much of a shock to the system by now.
“There was nerves in the first couple of minutes [of the first round], as you could see when they made those couple of shots,” Grimes said. “But I feel like after the first timeout everybody kind of settled down, when you stick to the game plan, everything started flowing offensively.”
Coach Bill Self noticed the same thing about KU on Thursday, noting that while it was a positive, things will change against a tougher Auburn team in the second round.
“But I, if you have some jitters, which I know we did, tried to take them out on the defensive end as much as possible,” Self said. “And I think we were pretty at doing that [Thursday].”
Freshman forward David McCormack played sparingly during the opening-round game due to a need to play more guards against a small Northeastern team. However, he was still able to gain invaluable postseason experience by playing later in the second half. He said that after seeing what tournament basketball is like, the younger players should be able to loosen up on the floor as they advance.
“I just feel, the freshmen, we had to get our feet wet, and now going forward we know how the style of play is going to be,” McCormack said.
Auburn is a distinctly more athletic team than Northeastern, and shoots the three more than almost anyone in the country. Despite that potential advantage for the Tigers, the Jayhawks still have, arguably only to a certain point, the best player between the two teams.
“Dedric Lawson is probably going to be a big problem,” Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore said.
Lawson is coming off of his 21st double-double of the year, in which he scored 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds in the first-round win. His three-point shooting played a big role in that game as well, as he went 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.
The tournament is new to him too, though, despite being the only non-freshman in the starting lineup. He couldn’t play during last year’s Final Four run due to NCAA transfer regulations, and Memphis didn’t make it to the tournament during his two years there.
His ability to stretch the floor and play a versatile role is going to be a necessity for Kansas to win this weekend.
“He was the [Big 12] newcomer of the year, he was highly recruited, he’s highly talented,” McLemore said. “For us and the post guys on our team, we have to see how we face up against him and hopefully disrupt him a little bit and make it hard for him to score around the paint.”
This hasn’t been a typical Kansas season, which speaks to how high the expectations are for Self’s teams. Despite that perception, though, he said this year has still been a success, with potential for a lot more coming if the Jayhawks can keep winning in the tournament.
“I do think the opportunity to get to a second weekend — of course Auburn has the same opportunity — is something that I think our guys will look at and say, ‘Considering everything we’ve been through, this has been a really good season,'” Self said. “Still not great, but really good with a chance maybe to build on it.”
Click below to hear what the Jayhawks had to say as they get ready to face Auburn on Saturday.
Quentin Grimes and Mitch Lightfoot