LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball’s road to a potential Final Four will begin in Salt Lake City.
Regardless of what happens there, though, the Jayhawks will be coming home for the second weekend.
KU earned the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional, revealed during Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament selection show. The Jayhawks (25-9) will battle No. 13 seed Northeastern (23-10) in an opening-round matchup at approximately 3 p.m. Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, and a victory there would earn a Round of 32 clash Saturday against either No. 5 seed Auburn or No. 12 seed New Mexico State.
If the Jayhawks can survive the first weekend, they will earn a trip to the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., where a potential Sweet 16 clash with No. 1 seed North Carolina and former KU coach Roy Williams could await.
KU’s current coach acknowledged he wasn't expecting his team's possible second-weekend destination, a mere 45-minute drive east on I-70 from Lawrence.
“Yes. Almost shocked,” Self said. “... I like that we’re in the Midwest. It’d be nice if we would’ve driven to (first-weekend sites) Des Moines or Tulsa also, but usually when you’re a four-seed, you know, you don’t get everything catered to you like we have sometimes in the past because we’ve been a one.”
Other teams in the Midwest Regional include No. 16 Iona; No. 8 Utah State; No. 9 Washington; No. 6 Iowa State; No. 11 Ohio State; No. 3 Houston; No. 14 Georgia State; No. 7 Wofford; No. 10 Seton Hall; No. 2 Kentucky; and No. 15 Abilene Christian.
Analyzing the Jayhawks' draw, Self started with one word: "Hard."
“I’m not going to think about this, but if the favorites win according to seed line, having (North) Carolina and Kentucky in one region, I mean, that sounds more like a Final Four than a regional,” Self said. “But a lot of things have to happen for all teams for that to occur, and certainly we’re just focused on a two-game tournament. Gotta put all our emphasis on that and not even think past that.”
KU finished two games behind Big 12 regular-season winners Texas Tech and Kansas State, the first time it hasn’t won at least a share of that championship since the 2003-04 season, and fell 78-66 to Iowa State on Saturday in Big 12 Tournament championship game, which represented the fourth game these Jayhawks have played this season at Sprint Center.
At least some national voices sympathized with what could be a road-type atmosphere for North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
"Instant reaction: Putting #Kansas in the Midwest as a four seed is an absolute outrage," tweeted ESPN personality Mike Greenberg.
Asked whether he feels it’s “fair” for a one-seed to possibly play a Sweet 16 contest against a foe so close to home, Self said he didn’t want to get into the specifics of that scenario.
“I would say that to me, if you win two games in the tournament, you know you’re going to play a really good team and you know it’s probably going to be a neutral deal in a situation like that,” Self said. “But this won’t be a neutral deal if everybody advances. You throw Iowa State in if they advance? I mean, they’ll have more fans there than anybody.
“I still think what wins more than anything is talent and talented players playing together at the right time, but certainly we had an opportunity to play Carolina the first weekend in Kansas City (in the 2012-13 tournament) and that was a pretty significant advantage for us at that point in time. But that’s getting way ahead of what we should be thinking about.”
What the Jayhawks are thinking about is Northeastern, a sharp-shooting, four-guard squad out of Boston. The Huskies finished tied for first in the Colonial Athletic Association and secured the automatic bid out of the conference tournament, riding a 48.2-percent field goal percentage and a 38.8-percent clip from 3-point range this season into March Madness.
If KU, which opened as an 10-point favorite over Northeastern, can advance to Saturday’s game, they’ll play either an SEC Tournament-winning Auburn squad Self labeled “arguably as hot as anybody” or a New Mexico State team that put a scare into the Jayhawks in a 63-60 decision Dec. 8 at — you guessed it — Sprint Center.
“It’s hard, but our focus is on trying to win two games this weekend,” Self said of KU’s path. “We know we’ve got a tough opponent.”