By Wendell Barnhouse | email@example.com Big12Sports.com Correspondent
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – 116-0.
That’s the record that No. 1 seeds have when playing No. 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The first year of seeding that matched ones and 16s in the first round was 1985. In a time when No. 15 seeds have defeated No. 2 seeds three times in the last two years, a No. 16 has yet to pull off the upset of upsets.
For that, Kansas is glad.
“I always like being a No. 1 seed and it’s always nice to have your name up there like that,” KU coach Bill Self said. “But a No. 16 is gonna beat a No. 1. It’s going to happen.”
It didn’t happen Friday night.
No. 16 seed Western Kentucky made the top-seeded Jayhawks nervous and sweaty. The Hilltoppers led by four points in the first half and by one point at halftime. In one of the last games in the greatest two days in sports, there was a chance of history.
Kansas, which leads the nation in field goal percentage defense, made sure it wasn’t on the wrong side of history. The Jayhawks (30-5) locked down Western Kentucky in the second half and found just enough offense for a 64-57 victory in the South Regional second round.
Next up: North Carolina and former KU coach Roy Williams. The Jayhawks and the No. 8 seed Tar Heels will be at 4:15 p.m. Sunday. Williams, who won the 700th game of his career here earlier Friday night, coached at Kansas for 15 years. Since he left for Chapel Hill, the Jayhawks have defeated the Tar Heels twice – both in the NCAA Tournament.
Had Western Kentucky (20-16) prevailed, there would have been plenty of good seats available at the Sprint Center Sunday.
Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper went to six consecutive NCAA Division II championship games coaching Kentucky Wesleyan, winning two national titles. He guided Oklahoma City to three consecutive NAIA championship games, winning twice. He has a clue.
Western Kentucky spread the floor and attacked with 6-6 George Fant acting as a point forward. Kansas had Jeff Withey guarding Fant, which helped facilitate the WKU game plan.
“We said, ‘Okay, if he's going to guard George, then we're going to spread this thing, let George be the guy to make some decisions with the basketball,’” said Harper, who was Southwest Conference freshman of the year in 1981 at Texas before transferring. “Our plan was not to drive and score, it was to drive and pass. We got away from that plan.”
The Hilltoppers switched defenses – man, zone, full-court – but were always pressuring the Jayhawks.
"They kind of surprised us how good they were,” Withey said. “We definitely took them lightly. … We can’t let that happen.”
Because that’s how upsets can happen.
“We were a little sped up,” said Kansas senior Travis Releford. “Western Kentucky defended us well and made us go faster than we wanted.”
Kansas survived despite committing 17 turnovers, being out-rebounded 41-35 and missing all six of its 3-point attempts. It was the first time in 201 games the Jayhawks failed to make a three.
“We made one shot for the game outside of two feet,” Self said. “The one we made was our seven-footer (a free throw line jumper by Withey). We didn’t exactly light it up.”
Withey finished with a game-high 17 points on seven-of-nine shooting. He also blocked seven shots, continuing the rejection trend he started last season in the NCAA Tournament.
The difference for Kansas was placing a lid on the WKU basket in the second half. The Hilltoppers made just 8-of-39 shots (20.5 percent) in the second half. With 3:08 remaining and Kansas leading 53-42, WKU had scored 11 points and missed 24 of 28 shots. A late flurry produced 15 points but it wasn’t enough.
“Sometimes the ball just didn’t go in for you,” said Western Kentucky’s Jamal Crook, who scored a team-high 13. “I thought we had some great looks, the just didn’t fall for us.”
Kansas made 13 of its last 16 free throws, which was handy considering it had just two field goals over the final 7:07.
Just last Saturday, Kansas completed a three-game sweep to win the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Championship in the Sprint Center. Being a No. 1 seed and playing a de facto home game was considered a big edge for the Big 12 co-champions.
“Sometimes playing at home, I think, puts more pressure on you in certain ways,” Self said. “We didn’t respond very well to the advantages we had. There was a little bit of a different feel (in the pre-game locker room). I actually noticed it. We were tight.
“I thought Western Kentucky was the most aggressive team. We’re happy to advance but we’re certainly not pleased with how we played.”