The story of the first two days of the NCAA tournament was written in chalk. And the first weekend of the tournament showed how quickly chalk can be erased.
Top-seeded Villanova, the defending champ, lost to Wisconsin. Duke, the preseason no. 1, lost in South Carolina to South Carolina. No. 2-seed Louisville fell to Michigan. And of the favorites that won, many came close to losing. North Carolina trailed Arkansas late but escaped after some weird plays and weird calls; Roy Williams himself called it “lucky.” Gonzaga was struggling to stop a Northwestern comeback when a blown call and technical foul sapped the Wildcats’ momentum. Kentucky never led Wichita State by more than seven points and won after a pair of late blocks.
And then there are the Kansas Jayhawks, who have flown above it all. They defeated UC-Davis by 38 in the 1-against-16 game, the second-biggest margin of any first-round victory, which set them up for a game against 9-seed Michigan State. We’re continually told that Tom Izzo always gets his team to play at their best — except, um, that one time — and the Jayhawks easily dispatched the Spartans, 90–70.
Against Michigan State, Kansas seemed complete. Josh Jackson showed why he’ll likely be a top-three pick should he choose to leave Lawrence for the NBA draft; Devonte’ Graham hit four 3s; Landen Lucas controlled the paint and scored efficiently. And national player of the year candidate Frank Mason III didn’t even play a particularly good game; he missed every 3 he took for the first time since November.
(Amid the on-court success, it must be mentioned that various Kansas players have found trouble off the court. For their opening-game loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament, Jackson was suspended after hitting a parked car and leaving the scene. He’s also been charged with vandalizing the car of a player on the women’s basketball team, who told police that Jackson had threatened to “beat” her. In January, reports emerged that the school had found that guard Lagerald Vick likely hit a female student in late 2015. And several players on the team were questioned as witnesses in a rape case.)
If you could redo your brackets, I’d tell you the Jayhawks have the best chance of any of the three remaining 1-seeds to survive this upcoming weekend and make the Final Four. They’ve looked the best in this tournament, and a lot of their work has been done for them. The second seed in their region was Louisville. The third seed is Oregon, who lost starter Chris Boucher, who was averaging 11.8 points and 2.5 blocks per game, to an ACL injury right before the tournament and struggled with 11-seed Rhode Island. Then there was the prospect of Kansas having to play against Iowa State, who beat the Jayhawks in Lawrence in February, but the Cyclones were taken out by Purdue.
Coming into the tournament, there was reason to doubt the Jayhawks. With a 68-team single-elimination tournament, there always is.
Advanced stats said Kansas was the worst of the four 1-seeds. They ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings; the other three 1-seeds all rated in the top three. Plus, Kansas entered the tournament fresh off a loss to a TCU team that didn’t even end up making the field.
But one tournament game can change the way we view a team’s entire season. Duke was surging into the NCAA tournament and “putting the pieces together” while Villanova was “primed for another NCAA run” and “ready to repeat” after each team won its conference tournament. Then both the Blue Devils and Wildcats had one off-night. Now this is Duke’s “greatest bust ever” and Villanova was “unsteady.” All it took to turn momentum into nothingness was a game.
In four out of the last five years, the team that won the national title didn’t win its conference tournament. Last year’s Villanova title was sandwiched in between two years of winning the Big East and losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Either conference tournament performance is inversely related to how good a team is, or we need to take a step back and appreciate the sheer randomness and beauty of the NCAA tournament. You can fail to win three games in a 12-team tournament and then win six games in a significantly more difficult 68-team tournament. The second one is all that matters.
Next up for the Jayhawks is 4-seed Purdue, which could easily beat Kansas. Only 14 teams in basketball shoot better than 40 percent from 3, including Kansas and Purdue. One of Kansas’s strengths is its offensive rebounding, and Purdue is one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country. Caleb Swanigan is significantly better than any big man on Kansas’s roster.
Heading into Thursday, though, Kansas is in prime position to win the national championship, and it played better than anybody in the first two games of the tourney. The Jayhawks could also lose and go home after the Sweet 16. There is only one way to understand what happens in the NCAA tournament, and it is this: Everything matters — until it doesn’t.