Bracket Lames: Rock, choke, Jayhawk! Kansas to again stumble in NCAA tournament

The will to win is the primary motivation for every college from Abilene Christian to Youngstown State. Athletic directors, coaches, players, cheerleaders, body-painted fans, goofy, or in the case of Providence, downright frightening mascots – all program components strive for one thing and one thing only, championships.

Some who reached the pinnacle were the Blind Melons of their day, true one-hit wonders. Others ruled over the charts long enough to earn Mariah Carey “diva” status. North Carolina women’s soccer, Iowa wrestling, UConn women’s basketball, North Dakota St. football and UCLA hoops during the John Wooden years are just a few dynasty examples.

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Kansas’ 14-year dominion over the Big 12 also falls into the above category.

Since jetting from Champaign to Lawrence in 2003, Bill Self has collected enough hardware to seemingly fill an airport hanger. Personal awards, trimmed nets, shiny plaques, the coach has racked the accolades. It’s no wonder why he nets close to $5 million per season and has a rightful spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Though well decorated, the 55-year-old coach, to many Rock Chalk faithful, has fallen short in one critical department – maintaining postseason consistency.

Kansas did hoist a trophy in 2008 and was a runner up in 2012, but they were the school’s only Final Four appearances in the Self Era. Early eliminations at the hands of Bradley, Bucknell, Northern Iowa, Stanford and Wichita St., each a No. 7 seed or lower, tarnished otherwise spectacular seasons.

Once again on the top line entering tis year’s exercise, the Jayhawks are extremely susceptible to continue their streak of futility.

Here are three reasons why I believe the Jayhawks are destined to again bust in the NCAA Tournament.

Three-point reliance. The current structure of this year’s Kansas team echoes back to another Self-recruited squad, Illinois in 2005. That memorable Illini bunch, thin in the paint, leaned heavily on a three-guard lineup of Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams. The Jayhawks, with Devonte Graham, Malik Newman, Lagerald Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk share similar characteristics. Collectively, they shoot over 40 percent from deep; those threes accounting for just over 37 percent of the points scored. When outside shots don’t fall, they become very vulnerable, as witnessed in defeats to Washington, Texas Tech and Baylor.

Lack of frontcourt depth. Piggybacking on the previous point, Kansas is woefully undermanned down low. Udoka Azubuike is a viable rim protector with the power and rebounding strength to thwart the competition, but if he attracts whistles the step down to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvia De Sousa is rather dramatic. His injured knee, which forced him to miss the Big 12 tournament, also lends pause. For the Jayhawks to stave off an upset, they must keep Azubuike out of foul trouble and/or bombard opponents relentlessly from distance.

Questionable defense. As we get deeper into the NCAA Tournament defensive emphasis usually separates the pretenders from the contenders. Teams that freely allow uncontested shots are often weeded out before reaching the Final Four. Take last year for instance. Each participant – North Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon and South Carolina – ranked inside the top-25 in adjust defensive efficiency pre-tourney. Entering this year’s shindig, Kansas checks in at No. 46 in the category. In Big 12 action, it was often brutalized on the glass and surrendered 1.09 points per possession. Don’t cinch the belt and falling short of San Antonio is inevitable.

Draw. Unquestionably, the Jayhawks drew the short straw in the Midwest region. Seton Hall, featuring double-doubles pulverizer Angel Delgado, might be its toughest opponent in matchup terms in the region’s top half, but potential future clashes with Duke or Michigan St. are even more intimidating. The Blue Devils and Spartans each boast formidable front lines. Whether its the combo of Marvin Bagley/Wendell Carter or Jaren Jackson/Miles Bridges, KU, under that scenario, would almost assuredly meet its maker. There wouldn’t be enough vibranium in Wakanda to save it.

Kansas was dynamite in the Big 12 tournament totaling a fiery 1.21 points per possession. However, for the reasons mentioned above, it’s bound to experience an all-too-familiar fate.

Here are four additional letdowns (No. 4 seeds or higher) from that could bust your bracket.

Xavier Musketeers (28-5, No. 1 seed, West region) – All for one and one for … err … Apologies, Alexandre Dumas, but this year’s group of swashbuckling adventurers are wielding foam swords instead of sharpened sabers. Unlike last March in which Xavier, then a No. 11 seed, carved a path to the Elite Eight, the target on its back as the bigwig out West is enlarged. The competition is certainly gunning for the Muskies and it would be no shock if they failed miserably in their attempt to duplicate the success of 2017. Why? Chris Mack’s 1-3-1 zone isn’t nearly as restrictive. His defense conceded 1.07 points per possession and ranked near the bottom in effective field-goal percentage allowed. In fact, opponents converted an absurd 54.6 percent inside the arc against the X-Men. To be fair, their offense remains stellar. Trevon Blueitt and JP Macura are a dynamic scoring duo. Overall, the Muskies distribute the ball cleanly and sport the seventh-best points per possession (1.21) average among this year’s tourney members. However, they thrived off second chances a season ago, an area where they performed marginally this winter. Stoking the fire, their potential road to San Antonio is filled with potholes in Gonzaga, Michigan and North Carolina. Total it up and Xavier, like Kansas, isn’t a top seed worth trusting.

Purdue Boilermakers (28-6, No. 2 seed, East region) – For the past several NCAA Tournaments, it seems, I’ve bought into the Boilers hook, line and sinker. Their across-the-board consistency and fruitful productivity in multiple categories always lured me in. The end result: A red-slashed bracket. No more. Seduced too many times, this scorned lover is moving on. Speaking kindly, the Boilers have much to admire. Seven-footer Isaac Haas, a Drago doppelgänger, is arguably the most improved big man in the country. Carsen Edwards is a gritty, tough and explosive scorer who can overtake games with his range (41.2 3PT%), off-the-bounce acceleration and inflexible defense. Vince Edwards, P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias, a blanketing shot contester and three-point marksman (46.4%), are also master chefs in the basketball kitchen. However, I question whether the Boilers truly possess the killer instinct needed to string together enough Ws to escape the East. Too often down the stretch (e.g. the Penn St. and Ohio St. games), Purdue whiffed on a knockout punch attempt. Its adequate depth combined with few generated second-chance opportunities, which is odd given the larger Edwards and Haas’ presence, only amplify concern. Paper tiger? It’s not an unreasonable belief. The track record for No. 2 seed early exits is well documented (see below). This year, the Boilers could extend the streak.

Auburn Tigers (25-7, No. 4 seed, Midwest region) – A group of Tigers is called an ambush. Cunning, aggressive and lethal hunters, they can easily take down prey of all shapes and sizes. However, it’s doubtful Bruce Pearl’s Panthera earn their stripes. Auburn is flush with long, athletic and fleet-footed shooters. In Pearl’s uptempo system they always have the green light. Mutsapha Heron, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper each pack versatile games, penetrating, slashing and splashing from outside. Turning up the heat on the opposite end, Auburn, as a unit, forced a turnover on nearly 21 percent of opponent possessions. But exposed over the final month – the Tigers enter the Dance losing three of their last four games – they showcase noticeable defects. For starters, the absence of Anfernee McLemore to injury, is an irrecoverable blow. Undoubtedly, he was Auburn’s best interior defender and rim protector. Since his departure in late February teams have registered measurable success in the paint and on the glass. Muscular post-oriented teams (e.g. New Mexico State) would present a daunting matchup. Throw in its average at best perimeter D and its unlikely the Tigers will earn their postseason stripes.

Arizona Wildcats (27-7, No. 4 seed, South region) – It’s been a rather uneventful last few weeks in Tucson – deep FBI investigation ties, possible wiretap confessions, vehement Sean Miller rebuke, Allonzo Trier PED suspension, Pac-12 regular season title, Pac-12 conference tourney title. Somehow this life-changing story on $3.13 margaritas to celebrate Chili’s 43rd birthday escaped locals. Now that’s criminal. Arizona definitely has the talent to advance well beyond the opening weekend. Deandre Ayton, described by Bill Walton as a “modern day Shaq,” is practically uncontainable. When energized, a 30-15 line is easy for him to record. Trier, an accurate shooter from deep (39.1 3PT%), is back and better than ever. Meanwhile, ball hawk Rawle Alkins is the club’s connective tissue, executing on the little things while tipping the scales on offense. Not to be overlooked, Parker Jackson-Cartwright has done a tremendous job as a facilitator and scorer. Again, Arizona is loaded and, like most Pac-12 teams, it can apply crooked numbers on the scoreboard. But its defense has proven to be occasionally leaky, especially along the arc. Teams have unleashed outside against the Wildcats netting 35.2 percent. A possible Round 2 tango with Davidson or suddenly scorching Kentucky would be no ice cream social. They’re a buzzy mid-seed “sleeper” for several reasons, but don’t bet on a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:

• Since 2006, roughly 60 percent of teams seeded No. 11-15 that advanced beyond Round 1 ranked inside the top-75 in offensive efficiency. Defense may win championships, but offense springs Cinderella.

• Excluding 2009, at least one No. 2 seed has been eliminated by Round 2 every year since 1997. Last year, Duke and Louisville fell victim.

• Seventeen 8/9 seeds have upended a No. 1 since 1985. Wisconsin was the last to accomplish the feat knocking off Villanova in 2017.

• No. 5 seeds have lost 35.6 percent of their first-round matchups since ’85.

• No. 3 and No. 6 seeds beware. Nine No. 11 seeds have reached the Sweet Sixteen since 2010. Xavier reached the regional semifinals last year.

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