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BURNING QUESTION: Predicting How Far Kansas Basketball Goes in the Tournament

It is March once again, which means it's time for the annual March Madness NCAA Basketball Tournament. As what seemingly is tradition, the Kansas Jayhawks have made the tournament for the 34th straight year, holding the longest streak of consecutive tournaments out of all NCAA Division 1 schools. The two other local major schools, Kansas State and Missouri, both failed to make the NCAA Tournament, leaving the Jayhawks as the only local team with a chance at a national title in men's basketball for the 2023-24 season. However, that journey is much easier said than done, and the Jayhawks have still had a tumultuous year of injuries, transfers, players getting in trouble, and much more that has left many skeptical about their performance in the upcoming tournament. This week's Burning Question focuses on that performance, that question is how far you, the reader, think the Kansas Jayhawks will end up going in the tournament.


A Short Summary of the Jayhawks Season...

We cannot make a proper judgment without first acknowledging how we got to this point. The Jayhawks are a 4-seed in this year's March Madness, their lowest seeding since the 2018-19 season. They finished with a 22-10 record, went 10-8 in Big 12 conference matchups, and had a 3-7 road record, their worst road record since that aforementioned '18-'19 season. It's not like they played badly this season either, they beat 2 of the 4 1-seeds in this year's tournament, looked like they could beat any team in the country when healthy and firing on all cylinders, and have 2 First Team All-Big 12 members in Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar. That's just it though, for talent that's consistently good, that's pretty much the list for the Jayhawks. Everyone else has struggled to a varying degree, star freshman Johnny Furphy looks like he still has some development to do, KJ Adams hasn't found a consistent place in the Jayhawks' starting lineup, Dajuan Harris has seemingly taken a backslide, and once again the Jayhawks have no bench, either due to developing players needing that time or players that have just not panned out. Their most efficient bench player is Nick Timberlake who averages just 4.7 PPG, 1.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, and a 36.8% FG percentage. This lack of depth showed in an early Big 12 Tournament exit at the hands of Cincinnati, where the Jayhawks didn't have McCullar or Dickinson. Read more on that here.

The worst part is, the bench problems were preventable. Yes, the Jayhawks were down two scholarships due to the IARP investigation results, and yes, the Arterio Morris situation falls solely on him and his actions, which were deplorable, however, Kansas also lost freshman Chris Johnson to Texas due to what seemed like him not being happy with Kansas's coaching staff. The same goes for Marcus Adams and others, who did not feel at home at Kansas. While these guys probably wouldn't have made a large amount of difference, given that they mostly ride the bench at their respective new schools, they could have still proven to have been all-important depth pieces. Kansas struggled with load management and not enough was done on the coaching end to prevent that. If this upcoming offseason doesn't go well, it may be time to reevaluate the assistant coaching and recruiting at Kansas, as this past year was a debacle and a preventable one at that. Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar likely don't have to carry as large of a load if there is more dependable depth to this lineup and it could have prevented injuries. In the end, though, Kansas is here now with a chance to make a run at the title, so let's explore how they could get there and IF they can get there.


How the Jayhawks Go All the Way

The Jayhawks are, as stated previously, a 4-seed in the Midwest Region. The Midwest Region includes the likes of Purdue, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Texas, and Creighton, along with a lot of other small schools that mismatch with Kansas like McNeese State and their first-round opponent, Samford. However, let's talk about Samford for a second. Samford shoots the 3-ball really well, like, REALLY well. 40% from beyond the arc, to be exact, and with the Jayhawks' perimeter defense being less than spectacular, they will be chomping at the bit to go on a run and get some deep shots up. They're also the 14th fastest-paced team in the country, playing what's called "Bucky Ball" basketball. You can read more about that in this University Daily Kansan article written by Sam Winton. They're thirsty for turnovers on the defensive end and love to apply pressure in a full-court press. This being said Samford is also REALLY small. Samford is 349th in average height in NCAA Division 1 and let teams dominate down low, shooting nearly 50% from inside the arc. They've also played just one tournament team this year, Purdue, and lost to them 98-45. Samford is the trendy pick over Kansas because Kansas has been on a skid and dealing with injuries, but I think people are a lot more worried about this game than they should be.

The next potential opponent, either Gonzaga or McNeese State, poses interesting, but winnable matchups too. Gonzaga is not the Gonzaga of old. While they are Top 15 in KenPom rankings, their perimeter shooting is far worse (which I realize doesn't mean anything to Kansas fans, in fact, some see it as a negative for Kansas), their defense is weaker, and they're much smaller than past Gonzaga squads. If Kansas can catch them on fast breaks and dominate the paint, i.e. their bread and butter when they play well, they win that matchup easily. McNeese is another team that shoots the three ball well, but unlike Samford has a solid resume, beating tournament team UAB 81-60 as well as high major schools like Michigan. I think this is the matchup many people are concerned with, however, if the Jayhawks are fully healthy this game should not be an issue. McNeese still struggles with size disadvantage and when not playing at their tempo, can also find hardship. The Jayhawks just need to control the tempo and keep the play inside.

However, with this second to last point, lies the determinant of this tournament (poet and didn't even know it!), is Kansas healthy and can Kansas STAY healthy? Mind you, this is just the first weekend we're talking about here, and with two tough matchups that could take a toll on a not-very-deep Kansas squad. I think many believe Kansas will make it to at least the second weekend should they stay healthy, but this is a big if given the nature of McCullar and Dickinson's injuries. Time will tell, but that will be the key factor in getting to the second weekend and beyond. Once past the first weekend, I believe the Jayhawks can make a good run if they are healthy, but they have to play their best, most consistent ball...


How the Jayhawks Won't Go All the Way

Let's face facts here: This is not a Kansas team that people are expecting to make a run at the national title. They lack depth, physicality, and perimeter shooting, and when they get down, they normally stay down, trading twos for threes and just playing without hardly any passion when playing from behind. When you're doing that against teams that can shoot lights out like McNeese and Samford, be prepared to be embarrassed, if not by them then by a team like Creighton or Tennessee. This team needs "dawgs" on their squad, players like Frank Mason, Devonte Graham, Christian Braun, and others to step up, take the reigns, and take it to the opponent, and they simply don't have that this year. Many thought Dajuan Harris was going to be that guy this year, but he simply hasn't been. The Jayhawks, when playing their best ball, can beat anyone, however, when they don't play their best ball they can LOSE to anyone, as was shown throughout the regular season. Kansas needs to play their best game, every game in order to win this tournament, a tall, almost impossible task, especially given the current state of the team. While it's expected that both Dickinson and McCullar will be healthy come Thursday, does that last, and even if it does, can this team pool together a full-team effort like what we saw against the likes of Houston, UConn, and Kentucky? I truly have a hard time believing they can, but this is Kansas and Bill Self we're talking about...we've seen stranger things happen.


My Prediction

I think Kansas has every opportunity to make it to the second weekend. There is where things get fuzzier, so I will not count my chickens before they hatch. I predict Kansas to the Sweet Sixteen, but health and consistency will determine how much farther they go, two things the Jayhawks have struggled with all year. Can they conquer it? I'll let you be the judge. If they can though, I believe the sky's the limit. If not...let's just say a first-weekend upset would not be surprising.

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