Rewind the calendar to the afternoon of Jan. 28, and you’ll find two teams sharing the top spot in the major polls. Kansas was in the midst of an 18-game winning streak, ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the coaches’ poll after a dominating stretch of basketball in December and early January.
The other team? Well, that was Michigan, taking over No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since the Fab Five made black socks and baggy shorts cool in the early 1990s.
On that day, it was easy to imagine that both the Jayhawks and Wolverines could wind end up in the Final Four in Atlanta. But nearly two months later, top-seeded Kansas will face No. 4 seed Michigan in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at 6:37 p.m. Friday at the South Regional in Arlington, Texas.
When the two teams take the floor at palatial Cowboys Stadium, you will see two teams that have spent the last two months going in different directions. The Jayhawks shook off a three-game losing streak in February and won a ninth straight title, while the Wolverines finished 6-6 in their last 10 regular-season games and two games in the Big Ten tournament.
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The differences continued this past weekend, in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks struggled with No. 16 seed Western Kentucky before surviving an ugly first half against No. 8 North Carolina. Michigan, meanwhile, took care of No. 13 South Dakota State and blew the doors off trendy Final Four pick VCU.
“We’re playing a team that just demolished an unbelievable basketball team in VCU,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Michigan is talented as anybody. When they play good, they’re definitely a top-five team in the country. And they’re playing good right now.”
Of course, the stark contrasts go beyond the paths the two teams took to Arlington. They also include how they got there.
In Michigan, the Jayhawks will face a young, offensive-oriented team that is ranked second in the nation in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Sophomore guard Trey Burke has emerged as a national player of the year candidate while averaging 18.8 points, 6.7 assists and shooting 47 percent from the floor.
Among teams left in the NCAA Tournament, only Indiana has been more efficient on offense. And nobody is younger; the Wolverines started three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior against VCU.
“It’s gonna be a great game,” Kansas freshman guard Ben McLemore said. “They’re a great team.”
But if Michigan is among the nation’s best at putting the ball in the basket, the Jayhawks proved again against North Carolina why they’re among the best at guarding. The Jayhawks rank first in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and fifth in defensive efficiency, a statistic that factors in the tempo of games.
The Jayhawks, with Jeff Withey playing the role of rim-protector, hold teams to just 38.7 percent on two-point attempts, the best mark in the country by a wide margin. The early question — the one that could decide Friday’s game — is perhaps this: Can Burke get in the lane and score against Withey?
There are other questions as well. The Michigan defense has been a major question mark, while the KU offense has suffered through fits of inconsistency. And there’s also this interesting fact: While Michigan is cast as the offensive juggernaut, and Kansas the tough-minded defensive squad, the Wolverines actually play at a slower pace than every team in the Big 12 except TCU, West Virginia and Kansas State.
On Sunday night, before Self could gather many thoughts about Michigan, he talked about the importance of thinking about this weekend as a two-game tournament. The Jayhawks had won their first two-game tourney in Kansas City, and now they had another. If the Jayhawks beat Michigan, they’ll play the winner of No. 3 seed Florida and No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast for the right to go to the 15th Final Four in school history.
Another four-team tourney. And it starts on Friday against Michigan.
“We wanna cut down two more nets,” Self said. “And in order to cut down the next one, we gotta prepare to win a two-game tournament.
“We got our work cut out in order to have an opportunity to cut down another net, but we want to be in this situation. And I’m so happy that we are.”