KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s never happened, of course. Not once. Not ever. And Elijah Johnson doesn’t want to hear about any of this.
Johnson, a Kansas senior, was sitting inside the Sprint Center on Thursday evening, preparing for his third NCAA Tournament run as a guard on a No. 1 seed. The Kansas Jayhawks open their tournament against No. 16 Western Kentucky at 8:50 p.m. on Friday. And that meant the question coming. No one wants to be THAT team, of course, the No. 1 seed that makes the wrong kind of history.
“Never say never,” Johnson says. “Never say never. I respect them as a program. I don’t underestimate them. They can come in here and beat us if we’re not focused. And I’m fully aware of that.”
The fact that a No. 16 seed has never broken through will cast a long shadow over every No. 1 vs. No. 16 showdown until the dam finally breaks. But Johnson has other reasons to be cautious. In his first two years at Kansas, Johnson was part of two No. 1 seeds that came up short. First, there was the devastating loss to Northern Iowa in the second round in 2010. Then came the Elite Eight gut-punch against Virginia Commonwealth the next season.
Those losses served as a lesson during last season’s run, when the Jayhawks rode a late-season surge to the NCAA championship game. But it’s worth pointing out that KU was a No. 2 seed last season. And in its history, Kansas has a better tourney record as a No. 2 seed than a No. 1.
Some recent history: Kansas earned a No. 1 seed four times from 2007 to 2011, and the Jayhawks made the Final Four once. Of course, they won the championship in 2008, the year they bucked the No. 1 seed curse. So perhaps Johnson has a point when he says seeds don’t matter.
“I emphasize this a lot,” Johnson said. “I do not care about being the 1-seed. You gotta ride that road regardless. You know how they say, ‘The road starts here, the road ends here?’ You gotta ride that anyway, it’s just about a different path.
“I don’t really pay attention to the number on the side. You gotta go through a tough bracket, regardless.”
Earlier this week, Kansas coach Bill Self said Western Kentucky, a tournament regular, didn’t look like a traditional No. 16 seed. He had watched film, and he saw an athletic team with more than one scorer.
But on Thursday, when the subject of No. 16 seeds came up, Self had an intriguing answer. On the one hand, he’d like to let his team know that even a 16-seed can be dangerous. On the other hand.…
“You’re planting seeds,” Self said. “The whole thing is, I don’t think you ever talk about losing. You talk about winning. So it will happen. It will happen.
“But I certainly don’t want it to happen at our expense.”
If you listen to KU’s players, Self probably doesn’t need to say much anyway. In the middle of the locker room sat Travis Releford, who was also around for those early No. 1 seeds that lost early. If there’s a lesson from those losses, Releford says, it’s that any team can beat anyone. All season long, he watched top-five teams fall against lesser competition. The Jayhawks even did their part at TCU.
Now it’s time to make sure they don’t end up in some NCAA tourney montage, forever known as the No. 1 seed that lost to a No. 16.
“It may be a little pressure,” Releford said. “But I don’t really look at it as pressure. We know that any given team can be beaten. As you look throughout the season, all those top-five teams went down so many times. So with that in mind, we’re not gonna step out on the court with a cocky confidence thinking we’re just gonna walk over Western Kentucky. We know we gotta go out and play.”