KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ray Harper, when he was coach at Oklahoma City University, played a role in Kansas' last national championship.
When he was at OCU, the current Western Kentucky coach allowed Darnell Jackson, a local lad to work out with his team while Jackson was dealing with family issues. Jackson went on to become a starter for the Jayhawks when they won the title in 2008.
When the 16th-seeded Hilltoppers (20-15) face the No. 1 seed Kansas (29-5), Harper could again be a facilitator for another deep NCAA Tournament run by the Jayhawks.
"I'm trying to watch as little film as I can," Harper said of Friday night's South Regional second-round game here at the Sprint Center. "It makes it hard to sleep at night."
Kansas coach Bill Self had an eight-day stretch when sleep might have been restless. The Jayhawks lost three consecutive games, including a head scratcher at TCU, in early February. Self, though, believes that stretch is what helped the Jayhawks recover their swagger and win 10 of their last 11.
"I don't think you can have totally smooth seasons and all of a sudden perform when it gets a little tough in certain situations," Self said. "I really think that (losing streak) helped us. I didn't think it going through it and certainly didn't like it, but looking back now and we were able to accomplish what we accomplished … I'm not sure we would have done those things if it weren't for that week."
The Jayhawks won their ninth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title and capped it off by winning the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Championship – also here at the Sprint Center. Those accomplishments balanced the losing streak and helped Kansas earn the top seed in the South Regional.
"We learned from losing and we [spun] it into a positive," Kansas senior center Jeff Withey said. "The taste we had after losing three in a row … we didn't want that anymore. I think we got humbled and figured out we had to come ready to play every time. Since then, I think we have. We wouldn't be as good as we are if we didn't go through that hardship."
Western Kentucky made NCAA history in earning a spot in the bracket. The Hilltoppers became the first school to win four games in four days in consecutive seasons to earn a conference's automatic bid.
"I think, this time of year, you win with your defense and your ability to rebound the basketball," Harper said. "If we turn the ball over at a high rate, we're in a lot of trouble, there's no question about it. At times, that's been something that's been a problem for us and other times we've been really good. So hopefully that team that understands and values that basketball shows up Friday night."
No. 1 Kansas (29-5) vs. No. 16 Western Kentucky (20-15)
8:50 p.m. Friday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, TNT
Coaches: Bill Self, Kansas; Ray Harper, Western Kentucky.
Why they're here: Kansas won the automatic bid from the Big 12. Western Kentucky won the automatic bid from the Sun Belt Conference.
Scouting the Jayhawks: With four seniors who played roles on last year's national runner up, Kansas has hopes of another deep run. Freshman Ben McLemore leads the team in scoring but at times the Jayhawks have had struggle scoring. KU got a boost from freshman Perry Ellis in winning the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship; he scored 36 in the last two games and if can provide offense, the Jayhawks will be tough to stop. Kansas leads the nation in field goal percentage defense and has the nation's third-best shot blocker in Jeff Withey.
Scouting the Hilltoppers: Western Kentucky's 10-10 conference record was borne of injuries. The Hilltoppers are now healthy and have a deep bench (including 6-11 senior Teeng Akol, who transferred from Oklahoma State). Guards T.J. Price and Jamal Crook are tough-minded players who won't be intimidated. They combine to average 27 points per game and both are adept at driving to the basket. Western Kentucky's top front court player is George Fant, a 6-6 sophomore who is a crafty hard worker around the basket. Western Kentucky sometimes struggles to score and it prefers games that aren't fast paced.