LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — In the end, it is only a day. Just 24 hours. But the difference between Kansas playing its NCAA Tournament opener Friday as opposed to Thursday may be what gets the second-seeded Jayhawks out of the first weekend.
Coach Bill Self’s bunch of was so beat up by the 18-game Big 12 grind, then three games in three days in the conference tournament, that they need all the rest they can get.
Leading scorer Perry Ellis was still hobbling around on a knee that he sprained late in the season against West Virginia. Landen Lucas was so sore that he looked like an old man walking out of the arena. Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason III and just about everyone else had something ailing them, some kind of injury that could use an extra 1,440 minutes of rest.
“The bottom line is we need to get our team back,” said Self, whose team plays No. 15 seed New Mexico State on Friday in Omaha, Nebraska. “Landen is out there fighting through it, and Perry is fighting through it, and we got some other guys that are nicked up, and we need to take a couple of days to regroup and get our batteries recharged.”
Every team still playing this time of year is worn down, of course. Self is the first to acknowledge that. But after playing the nation’s toughest schedule, the Jayhawks are just hoping that they resemble the team Self envisioned at the start of the year.
The biggest question is the status of Ellis, who was held out of their Big 12 Tournament opener against TCU, limped off early in a semifinal win over Baylor, then was seen wincing more than once on the bench during a championship game loss to Iowa State.
Ellis made it through the tournament with the help of a bulky brace, and he insisted this week that he will be closer to 100 percent by the time the Jayhawks lace ’em up again.
“It’s getting better as time goes on,” he said. “I’m getting comfortable with it.”
“We really want Perry’s knee to get back to 100 percent,” Selden said, “but even if his knee isn’t 100 percent, we want his mind to be 100 percent. As long as we have the right mentality we’ll be fine.”
Lucas, who took on more important minutes late in the season, was dealing with several nagging injuries down the stretch. And while he never admitting to playing through pain, it was evident in his performance that he was playing at less than full strength.
Selden tweaked his ankle late in the season, but bounced back to score a career-best 25 points in the Big 12 Tournament. Mason has been dealing with several bumps and bruises.
In other words, maybe the Jayhawks ought to consider changing their official school colors from crimson and blue to, well, black and blue.
Self gave his team Sunday off, with the exception of gathering at Allen Fieldhouse to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show. The Jayhawks pretty much took it easy Monday, a luxury they wouldn’t have had playing their opener Thursday.
Preparations for the Aggies began in earnest on Tuesday.
“It’s a hard first game,” Self said. “I think New Mexico State is 23-10 — they had some injuries. That’s the reason they lost some games early. They’re really good.”
After struggling to rack up non-conference wins early in the season that would have helped its seeding, New Mexico State put together a 13-game win streak when starters Daniel Mullings and Tshilidzi Nephawe returned from injuries in mid-January. Now, a veteran team making its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance is brimming with confidence.
“I had New Mexico State as like, a 13 seed, so I was surprised when we drew them,” Self said. “But I’ve said most years, as soon as you get (your matchup), the first thinking is, ‘God, that’s a lot harder than other teams got.’ But it’s a hard first game, it is. And certainly we’ve got to come ready to play Friday.”