DES MOINES, Iowa — If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Although it might be earlier than the Huskies wanted, ninth-seeded UConn will have a chance to do exactly that in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
UConn will take on Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament on Saturday night with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
“We can go by what concerns me the most, they are just talented and they’re deep,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said at Friday’s press conference. “They’re a great transition team. To be a No. 1 overall seed you don’t have too many weaknesses. They’re a solid basketball team. They can do it all.”
Kansas (31-4) comes into Saturday’s game as one of the top scoring teams in the country, and one of the hottest, winning 15 games in a row.
The Jayhawks have four players who score over 11 points per game, and they can be productive inside and out. Kansas scores 81.6 points per game (16th), shoots 49.4 percent from the field (sixth) and 42.6 percent from three-point range (second).
“It presents a great opportunity for the team and, see if we’re battle tested, this is a great opportunity to go in and play against one of the best teams in the country to see where we stand,” Daniel Hamilton said. “And I think we really got a great chance especially how we been playing lately, the last four games.”
Senior Perry Ellis leads Kansas in scoring with 16.8 points per game and has scored over 20 points in five of his last six games. Along with Ellis, Carlton Bragg Jr., Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas make up the Kansas big men.
“We have to, you know, do our work early, don’t let them get good post position,” Shonn Miller said. “Hit early, don’t let them get offensive rebounds, limit their opportunities and move our feet on defense and not foul as much has we did.”
The Jayhawks really run with their two guards: Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. Wayne Selden Jr. is listed at 6-foot-5 and plays a big role in the Kansas offense as well. Mason, Graham and Selden combine to average 37.7 points and 11.1 assists per game.
“We can’t have no live turnovers with them, live ball turnovers with them because they convert it and it starts with those guards,” Ollie said. “Starts with Graham, starts with Mason, they just terrific. The both shoot the ball very, very well. Wayne Selden is an exceptional shooter, so we’re going to have to get up and play them.”
The Huskies will have their hands full, for sure. The Jayhawks have lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament for the past two seasons. And although they aren’t shying away from that, Kansas coach Bill Self said he wasn’t using that as motivation for his team.
UConn was successful against Colorado in the first round because of their defensive pressure in the second half. The Huskies ramped up their energy and forced turnovers. Getting to the free throw line, where UConn shot 22 of 23, was key too.
The Huskies lead the nation in free throw shooting (79.3 percent) and are shooting 88.4 percent over their last four games. UConn is 11-2 when they shoot at least 20 free throws in a game this season.
Kansas committed 27 fouls in its first round game against Austin Peay. Self knows that the Jayhawks need to be more disciplined against the Huskies.
“We gotta play good defense,” Self said. “We gotta play aggressive, but we’ve got to play with our head and our feet and keep ‘em off the free throw line.”
The Huskies and Jayhawks have met just twice, with Kansas winning both games. This will be the ninth time that UConn has played a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are 3-5 in those games, with wins coming against Duke (2004, 1999) and Florida (2014).
“We want to fight and we want to be the first ones throwing punches and if it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough. But we want to give them our ‘A’ basketball game and we want to show up and really play Connecticut style,” Ollie said. “Hopefully that carries us over to the Sweet 16.”