ST. LOUIS -- Their Sweet 16 matchup against NC State was about 24 hours away. Still, the Kansas Jayhawks spent a large chunk of Thursday afternoon talking about their last game.
The one against Purdue.
“We got away with one,” point guard Tyshawn Taylor said.
Indeed, coach Bill Self’s squad trailed for all but 45 seconds of their round-of-32 tilt with the Boilermakers, before a late run propelled Kansas to a 63-60 win in Omaha. The Jayhawks shot a season-low 34 percent -- “that’s unheard of,” Self said -- but still managed to eke out the victory.
The performance may have been dismal, but it was just what Kansas needed.
“Getting past that first weekend was really tough,” KU center Jeff Withey said. “There are a lot of nerves that go along with those first few games. Now we can just relax and have fun.”
The Jayhawks better not get too relaxed.
NC State may be the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, but the Wolfpack has been one of the country’s hottest teams over the past two or three weeks. Coach Mark Gottfried’s squad beat two solid tournament opponents, San Diego State and Georgetown, to make it this far.
The Wolfpack players respect Kansas -- but they won’t be intimidated.
“I think we are a Cinderella team,” point guard Lorenzo Brown said. “Nobody expected us to be here. We just have to keep believing in ourselves that we can make it to the Final Four.”
NC State has one of the country’s more versatile, athletic forwards. Sophomore C.J. Leslie, who is averaging 17.5 points in his past four games, could be a tough matchup for KU forward Thomas Robinson because of his athleticism and ability to score away from the basket.
Scott Wood is the Wolfpack’s top 3-point shooter. He’s making just 35 percent of his long-range shots on the season, but in his last seven games he has shot 43 percent from beyond the arc.
At point guard, Taylor knows he’ll have a tough matchup with Brown, who stands 6-foot-5.
“They're big and athletic from each spot,” Taylor said. “Seeds don’t matter when you get to this point. That team is capable of being a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed. We’re going to have to play well to beat them.”
Or at least better than they did the past two games.
“Any team that has won [a title] has played some tough games and pulled out some close ones,” Taylor said. “Not every game is going to be a 20-point blowout. Sometimes you’re going to have to fight and scratch and claw to get some victories.”
While NC State creates many matchup problems for Kansas, the Jayhawks have plenty of players who can give the Wolfpack fits, too. Robinson is a Wooden Award candidate at forward, and Taylor is a fourth-year starter who led KU in scoring during Big 12 play.
NC State assistant Bobby Lutz worked under Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State last season and is used to preparing scouting reports on the Jayhawks.
“I know Kansas’ two-game [high-low] pretty well,” Lutz said. “I don’t think they’re very difficult to scout. But they’re difficult to beat.”
Who to watch
Thomas Robinson, Kansas: The 6-foot-9 forward averages 17.7 points and is ranked second in the nation in rebounds with 11.8 per contest. He scored just 11 points on 2-of-12 shooting against Purdue last week.
Elijah Johnson, Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor is KU's most high-profile guard, but Johnson has been the best member of the Jayhawks’ backcourt lately. He hit a deep 3-pointer, made a steal and had an assist on an alley-oop dunk to help spark Kansas’ comeback against Purdue.
C.J. Leslie, NC State: The 6-foot-9 Leslie weighs just 209 pounds, so he may have trouble banging down low with Robinson. But his quickness and ballhandling ability could create a headache for Kansas. Leslie, a sophomore, chose the Wolfpack over Kentucky.