The Kansas Jayhawks will face the Eastern Washington Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Indiana. Here is a preview of the game.
No. 3 Kansas (20-8) vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington (16-7), 12:15 p.m. CT, Saturday, TV: TBA
Location: Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis.
National rankings: Kansas: No. 12 (AP), No. 11 (USA Today); Eastern Washington: No ranking.
Path to March Madness: Kansas: At-large berth (dropped out of the Big 12 Tournament before the semifinals due to a positive COVID-19 test); Eastern Washington: Automatic qualifier (won Big Sky Conference tournament title).
NCAA Tournament history: Kansas and Eastern Washington have never met in the NCAA Tournament.
Winner faces: USC, Wichita State or Drake in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday.
Projected starting lineups
Kansas: G Ochai Agbaji, G Christian Braun, G Marcus Garrett, F Mitch Lightfoot, F David McCormack.
Eastern Washington: G/F Jacob Groves, F Tanner Groves, G Michael Meadows, G/F Kim Aiken Jr., G Jack Perry.
Player to watch
Kansas: Ochai Agbaji. He will need to play a huge role in Saturday’s first-round game, with Kansas likely being short-handed (they could be down as many as two starters). Good news is Agbaji has proven time and again that he’s up to the task. He’s averaging 14.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.9 assists this season. He’s enjoying his best season from the 3-point line (38.7 percent) and his best season from the free-throw line (70.0 percent). It’s putting Agbaji in a position where some NBA Draft boards are looking at him as a second-round pick, should he come out early. Go a little deeper and you’ll see a player that has scored 14.3 points per game in his last 11 games, and hit at least two 3-pointers in eight of those games. He’s emerged as a better defender this year, too. But what the Jayhawks really need from him in this tournament is to carry them offensively until the roster gets healthy.
Eastern Washington: Tanner Groves. Yes, the Eagles have two of them (Tanner’s brother, Jacob, is also part of the starting lineup). But Tanner is the one who’s been the mainstay all season. Tanner went from bench player last year to leading scorer (16.4 ppg) this year. His 8.1 rebounds per game is just behind Kim Aiken Jr. for the best average on the team. He’s an efficient player, as he’s put up these numbers playing fewer than 30 minutes per game. He was also the Big Sky Most Valuable Player and a unanimous All-Big Sky First-Team selection.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament
Kansas: After a seven-game stretch in which the Jayhawks went 2-5 and fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in more than a decade, they responded with a stretch in which they went 8-1, handed Baylor its first loss of the season, and returned to not only the Top 25 but the Top 15 of both the AP and USA Today polls. For most of the regular season, Kansas managed to dodge COVID-19. But not any longer. Starting forward David McCormack (13.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, Big 12 Most Improved Player of the Year) and backup Tristan Enaruna missed the Big 12 Tournament due to COVID-19 protocols. Next, the Jayhawks had a player test positive at the Big 12 Tournament, after their quarterfinal win over Oklahoma, and the team withdrew. The committee still made Kansas a No. 3 seed. But the Jayhawks arrived in Indianapolis without McCormack, Enaruna, and starting forward Jalen Wilson (12.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg). Wilson, who played great during the Jayhawks’ late-season run, reportedly won’t play in the first-round game. Head coach Bill Self is hoping that McCormack and Enaruna can play. Not having Wilson is a hit. The Jayhawks will need more from Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun (9.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Marcus Garrett (10.4 ppg, 1.6 spg), along with contributions from Mitch Lightfoot. Self already had a lean bench. Now it’s getting leaner.
Eastern Washington: This is why there’s always danger in looking at a team on spec and saying, as Seth Davis would, ‘Sharpie.’ The Eagles are a quality mid-major team and the best the Big Sky has to offer. They lost all three of their high-major games early in the season to Pac-12 teams, leading to a 1-3 start. But since then they’ve gone 15-4, mostly in Big Sky play, and swept through the conference tournament. The Eagles tweaked their starting lineup in February, and went to an alignment that featured all underclassmen. That included moving Tanner Groves’ brother, Jacob (8.7 ppg) into the starting lineup. Jacob, in fact, led the Eagles with 15 points in their Big Sky title game. Five other players average double figures — Tanner Groves, Kim Aiken Jr. (11.7 ppg), Tyler Robertson (11.3 ppg), Michael Meadows (10.4 ppg) and Jacob Davison (10.0 ppg). Aiken averages a team-leading 8.5 rebounds per game and was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. Robertson was named the Big Sky’s top reserve. The Eagles have won 13 of their last 14 games this season. They’re one of the hottest teams coming into March Madness. Plus, their head coach, Shantay Legans, knows the Tournament well. He played in the Tournament with California and was an assistant at EWU when it played in the Tournament in 2015.
When I talked with Heartland College Sports owner Pete Mundo for our bracket podcast on Sunday, I said that Kansas probably caught a break and got an easy road to the Sweet 16. In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.” First, Eastern Washington is better than its resume suggests. It’s hard to find a team in this Tournament that has five players averaging double figures this season. They have a productive front line and seven players that have averaged at least 20 minutes a game this season. No, the Eagles don’t have any ‘big’ wins, but their close to this season rivals anyone else in the field. As for Kansas, forward Jalen Wilson reportedly isn’t available for the first NCAA Tournament game. If that’s the case, that’s a big hit. It means, more than likely, the Jayhawks will install Mitch Lightfoot into the starting lineup. As big a question is whether David McCormack will play. He missed the Big 12 Tournament due to COVID-19 protocols and didn’t travel to Indianapolis this week. Head coach Bill Self believes that McCormack will be able to play, along with Tristan Enaruna. But we may not know until Friday if that’s the case. If the Jayhawks don’t Wilson AND McCormack, I don’t think they can win unless Ochai Agbaji has a career-high type of game. If McCormack can play, then I’ll take the Jayhawks. Yes, I’m splitting on this prediction. But the Jayhawks being two starters down, as opposed to one starter down, makes a huge difference, given their depth issues. So, down two starters, I’ll take EWU in an upset. Down one starter, I’ll take KU.
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