SALT LAKE CITY — Kansas basketball is in uncharted waters.
It’s been a decade since the Jayhawks received a seed lower than a one or two in the NCAA Tournament, and 13 years since the team was last assigned a four-seed. Ten years have also passed since KU last played in an opening weekend farther than a figurative stone’s throw from home.
But as Bill Self put it moments after KU’s arrival Tuesday night at the site of its first-round matchup against No. 13-seeded Northeastern at 3 p.m. Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, at least the travel shouldn't be viewed as an entirely foreign experience.
“It felt like a road game,” Self said, “except the band played at the Topeka airport, so I guess that’s a good thing.”
Kidding aside, Self enters this postseason in charge of a KU (25-9) roster that features at starting lineup with five newcomers to March Madness just two returning contributors from past NCAA Tournaments — only junior forward Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett can pull from tourney experience, both limited roles.
KU’s coaches haven’t spent much time explaining to the first-timers the nature of the beast, so to speak, though the group did schedule a post-dinner team meeting and scout session Tuesday, where that subject was expected to be discussed.
Self is opting to look at the bright sides of the more challenging path to a Final Four.
“I think the guys are excited,” Self said. “The one thing that has probably been, I don’t know if it’s an advantage or a disadvantage, but when you’re a one-seed, you and your players are thrown into the national spotlight or attention immediately. After the selection show, everybody wants to talk to you. Being where we’re at now, there haven’t been many requests like that. So I think our guys are flying under the radar pretty good. ...
“I kind of like it. But if I tell you I really like it, I’d probably be lying to an extent because that means I’m OK not being a one or a two. Of course we’d rather have had a better regular season, but we didn’t, but it’s still not bad. I mean, a four-seed, a lot of people wouldn’t say no to that.”
KU’s previous two times as a four-seed under Self produced mixed results — the 2004 team downed Illinois-Chicago 78-53 in the first round and made it to the Elite Eight, while the 2006 squad fell 77-73 to Bradley in an opening-tilt shocker.
Sharp-shooting Northeastern — the Huskies (23-10) boast a 38.8-percent mark from 3-point range, with four major contributors surpassing the 40-percent clip — appears a more-than-worthy foe for the third instance, with Self stating the Jayhawks’ lineup “will be much different the vast majority of the minutes” against the four-guard attack.
“They can stretch it from all spots, and they can even from the five-spot whenever they play a certain lineup. Great shooting team,” Self said. “They really know how to play; a bunch of vets. Athletic, too. They’ve got a couple of guys that are really fast. Those’ll be challenges for us. Certainly they’ve got a good team. They’ve got a good team. ...
“We’ve been the four before and played a very capable team as a 13, and I don’t think we’ve played anybody quite like Northeastern.”
Still, KU is a 6½-point favorite in the matchup, and while that line is down from the opening offering of 10, as second-round matchup against either No. 5-seeded Auburn or No. 12-seeded New Mexico State is well within reach. Win that Saturday affair and the Jayhawks will be coming home for a Sweet 16 date at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., potentially against No. 1-seeded North Carolina and former KU coach Roy Williams.
Before the team gets there, though, it must take care of business in front of a decidedly less partisan crowd in Salt Lake City.
“You know, we’ve had the benefit of some good geography over the last several years, with our fans being able to get (there),” Self said. “I think with this team, this is probably just as good to get away. I think this is actually perfect for us. ...
“Like, if we could win two games, there’ll be some distractions next week, and hopefully we’ll have to deal with that. But we’re not going to deal with that at all here as far as, you know, tickets are tight because boosters wanted ’em, but it’s not going to be like it has been in the past. That’s probably good for the players as well.”
As for eliminating distractions this weekend, well, the coaches are doing their best.
“I do think travel makes you tighter (in the huddle), but the way that we do it, the only thing that’s different is we take a bus (to past sites) instead of a plane, because once you get there, it’s all NCAA anyway,” Self said. “We’ll have security on the floors, guys aren’t going to be able to get out, families can’t get to them.
“We can dictate a lot of stuff. You can’t dictate cell phones in some ways, and playing ‘Fortnite’ until 3 a.m., so hopefully we’ll be mature enough not to do that.”