DES MOINES, Iowa — Bill Self actively participated in Kansas’ practice Friday for the first time since he needed medical attention prior to the Big 12 conference tournament, but he will be sidelined again Saturday for the Jayhawks’ second-round NCAA Tournament matchup against No. 8 seed Arkansas.
Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts will lead the No. 1 Jayhawks against the attacking, athletic Razorbacks for the fifth straight game. Self is recovering from a heart procedure.
Kansas (28-7) perspired through the first half of the Jayhawks’ 96-68 first-round win in the West Region over Howard on Thursday, and Roberts quipped postgame that he was prepared for Self to “kill me” upon returning to the team hotel.
But Roberts, acting head coach since March 8, survived the hotel prep session and scouting preview of Arkansas. The Razorbacks bear some scary resemblance to a more familiar Kansas opponent: the Texas Longhorns.
Scary because Texas beat the Jayhawks by 16 points in the regular-season finale and then manhandled Kansas by 20 in the Big 12 tournament championship game last Saturday.
“I don’t think anybody in the country has as many athletes as Arkansas has,” Roberts said. “We have had different teams in our league that are pretty athletic. Baylor was athletic but they’re not as tall, long. West Virginia is long but they’re not as fast. Probably the closest one would be Texas. Texas probably has as many athletes in length that’s similar to Arkansas.”
Arkansas suffocated Illinois’ guard-heavy lineup Thursday, building a 15-point lead before facing full-court pressure and temporarily losing a grip on the game. But after Illinois pulled to within five (62-57), the Razorbacks found a finishing kick that hasn’t always shown up this season, winning comfortably, 73-63.
As Arkansas’ energetic big man Kamani Johnson put it Friday, the Razorbacks are trying to learn not to “let go of big leads.”
“Illinois gave us a run in the later half and we threw a couple punches back ourselves,” he said following Friday’s practice. “So I think our team grew up, in a sense, during that game. That’s kinda been our story all year and we fixed it last night.”
Guard Jordan Walsh said Arkansas is confident in its brand of pressure that caused 17 Illinois turnovers on Thursday. He said he observed in preparation that teams are too generous giving Kansas space to operate.
“Every team has kind of like backed off letting them into their motion, letting them into their offense, letting them get set and do all this stuff,” Walsh said. “But I feel it’s different when you come to the SEC. Dudes are going to push up on you full court, like 6’9″ wings, 6’9” guards that are going to push up on and you make you turn the ball over.
“So I feel like that’s one place we have an advantage to push up full court and cause an uncomfortable feeling for them.”
Anthony Black, 6-foot-7 and 200 pounds, is one of those wicked wing defenders for Arkansas. He’ll likely help the Razorbacks try to contain Kansas freshman Gradey Dick, a sharpshooter who was active on the boards against Howard, and All-American Jalen Wilson, who average a combined 34.3 points per game.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman reminded the Razorbacks what he told them before ousting Gonzaga in the 2022 tournament: Nobody thinks you can win.
“I don’t think many people believed in us [Thursday] going into that game,” Musselman said. “I think we need to play with a free mind. We need to not feel pressure, which I don’t think we felt pressure yesterday. I don’t think we will feel pressure going into the Kansas game.
“We know. Again, we know that this is a team — the defending champions and a No. 1 seed. Our guys are smart. They’re on Twitter. They’re on Instagram. They know. They know what we’re playing against.”
–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media