BY JOHN ROHDE
March 16, 2017
TULSA — In the last 11 seasons, Kansas has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament seven times, which is more than any other program and that same span.
The Jayhawks’ impressive run of top seeds began in 2007 and they faced the winner of a play-in game between Niagara and Florida A&M. Niagara won to advance into the 64-team bracket, and three days later summarily got thrashed 107-67 by KU.
In those days, there was only one play-in game with the last two No. 16 seeds battling to become a sacrificial lamb as the No. 64 seed in the bracket.
In these days, there are four “First Four” play-in games in Dayton, Ohio. The last four No. 16 seeds battle for two spots, as do the last four at-large berths.
When the “First Four” made its debut in 2011, No. 11-seeded play-in winner VCU went 5-0 rather than the normally required 4-0 to advance to the Final Four, where it lost to Butler in a national semifinal at Houston.
In 2012, South Florida won its play-in game as a No. 12 seed, then posted an opening-round upset over No. 5-seeded Temple.
In 2013, La Salle won a play-in game as a No. 13 seed and upset No. 4-seeded Kansas State in the opening round, then got to the Sweet 16 with a victory over Mississippi.
In 2014, No. 11 play-in winner Tennessee destroyed No. 6 UMass 86-67, while fellow No. 11 play-in winner North Carolina State nearly won, losing to No. 6 Saint Louis in overtime.
In 2015, No. 11 Dayton survived a play-in game on its home court against Boise State 56-55 and then eliminated No. 6 Providence in the opening round before losing to Oklahoma.
In 2016, No. 11 seed Wichita State won its play-in game and promptly eliminated No. 6 Arizona.
A team that gets to face a play-in winner initially was portrayed as a huge break for whoever awaited the victor, but VCU obliterated that theory the first time the “First Four” was ever staged. Since then, a No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6 seed has been victimized every year.
Every year since 2011, at least one play-in game winner has won again.
However, never has a No. 16-seeded play-in winner won again, nor has any No. 16 seed been victorious in the 64-team bracket.
With top-seeded Gonzaga and Villanova both winning Thursday, No. 1 seeds are now 130-0 against No. 16 seeds since the 64-team bracket began in 1985.
Kansas coach Bill Self hopes to keep a 33-year, 130-game winning streak intact when his No. 1-seeded Jayhawks (28-4) face No. 16-seeded play-in winner UC Davis (23-12) at 5:50 p.m. at the BOK Center in Tulsa.
As fortune would have it, Self is no stranger to UC Davis coach Jim Les. In the 2006 tournament, Les coached No. 13-seeded Bradley to a 77-73 opening-round victory over Self’s No. 4-seeded Jayhawks. Led by Patrick O’Bryant and Marcellus Sommerville, the Braves followed up by upsetting No. 5-seeded Pittsburgh in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16 before losing to No. 1-seeded Memphis.
Friday’s game comes 11 years to the day KU vs. Bradley happened – March 17, 2006.
“So fortunately, the 10-year statute of limitations is up where you can’t talk about it. So we’re past that point,” Les said with a chuckle. “I’m really not interested in prodding that bear, Bill Self, and adding motivation to the game, but I was reminded last night. My wife and I were sitting on the plane as we were getting ready to take off and a number of the players from that (2006) team were texting me about our win and had watched the game, and then our matchup with Kansas. And my wife just leaned over and reminded me that those were the guys that won the game back then against Kansas.
“And I’ve been married 27 years by saying, ‘Yes, dear.’ So we’ll just go with that.”
Trying to recall the particulars of what transpired 11 years ago, Self drew laughter when he smiled and said, “I think that game … was it in Detroit (actually Auburn Hills, Mich.)? I’ve tried to forget.”
Meanwhile, the UC Davis Aggies are making their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I think he’s a terrific coach,” Self said of Les. “What he’s done in that program — and even here their players talk post game about how much they’ve improved defensively and the pride they’re taking. I mean, they guard right. They don’t just help. They help the helper. They help the helper’s helper. I mean, they are pretty much one unit playing together defensively. And they make it hard to score.”
Asked to share his areas of concern in facing Kansas, Les said, “Well, there’s a lot of areas of concern and we probably don’t have enough time (to discuss them). But, first of all, I have the utmost respect for Coach Self. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. And I’ve stolen a lot from him over the years, which is the greatest compliment. I watch their team every offseason. And now with the advent of, you know, video and uploading, I can watch a lot of games. And he’s just a guy I’ve known back from when I was in Illinois and he was coaching at Illinois, and just had a lot of respect for the way he approached coaching.”
Fresh off winning their 13th straight Big 12 regular-season title, the last time the Jayhawks took the floor, they lost their opening game in the Big 12 Tournament against TCU 85-82 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. KU freshman All-American Josh Jackson was sidelined for disciplinary reasons.
Therein could be a significant difference between the Aggies and Jayhawks. KU enters Friday’s game coming off a loss while UC Davis wouldn’t even be playing had it lost its most recent game.
The Aggies have won four straight, seven of their last eight, and are on a roll. “I think it’s better for us actually,” UC Davis guard Lawrence White said of playing Wednesday night in Dayton, where the Aggies eliminated North Carolina Cental. “We have to dust off the first-game nerves. I think it was good playing the First Four. Gives us a little momentum coming into this.”
Fellow guard Brynton Lemar added, “Yeah, I have to agree with Lawrence. We already have one game under our belt. But I just think the hardest part is just to stay locked in, because there’s a lot of attention that we’re getting from social media and our friends and family, stuff like that. So just turning that switch on and off. We have to be consistent with that, and I think we’re going to be fine.”
There will come a day when a No. 16 seed finally slays a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Will Friday be that day with either Kansas or North Carolina (which faces Texas Southern at 4 p.m.)?