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Bring on the Jayhawks: Eastern Washington will face Kansas in NCAA West Regional first round

Eastern Washington had a feeling it would get matched up with one of college basketball’s blue bloods.

How about the one with the nation’s longest-active NCAA Tournament streak?

Enter Rock Chalk Jayhawk.

The Big Sky Conference Tournament champion Eagles (16-7) will open the NCAA Tournament on Saturday as a 14 seed against national power and third-seeded Kansas (20-8) at 10:15 a.m. at Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.

The Eagles and the Jayhawks are part of the tournament’s West Region, which features No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga (26-0).

Kansas, which has 31 straight NCAA Tournament bids, had to back out of the Big 12 Tournament on Friday due to coronavirus protocols.

Kansas head coach Bill Self said Sunday that the team hasn’t had any positive tests since Friday and is currently down three players.

“Eastern Washington or Drake or Wichita State or USC, those are all hard games, especially for us since we’re a little light-handed right now. Those are all hard,” Self said.

EWU head coach Shantay Legans hasn’t changed his approach to playing one of college basketball’s all-time winningest teams.

“We’re playing against one of the best programs in the history of college basketball, so it’s definitely exciting,” EWU head coach Shantay Legans said. “I don’t know much about them, initially, but I’m looking forward to digging in and preparing for them.”

EWU, one of the nation’s highest-scoring teams (78 points per game), will face another one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses (73 ppg), stocked with its usual future NBA talent.

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (14.2 ppg) is widely expected to be a first-round NBA draft pick and is aided by another dynamic guard in Marcus Garrett (10.4 ppg, 4.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists).

Inside and on the wing, the big, athletic Jayhawks go to 6-foot-10 David McCormack (13.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 6-8 Jalen Wilson (12.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg).

Eastern Washington forward Tanner Groves, the Big Sky Conference regular season and tournament MVP, expects to face a physically superior squad but believes the veteran Eagles are battle-tested.

“They got a solid big guy and a couple really good guards,” said Groves, who averages 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds. “They’re going to be more athletic and bigger than us, but we’re going to be ready for it. Some of the (nonconference games against Pac-12 teams) helped us for this.”

This is EWU’s third NCAA Tournament appearance. It previously appeared in March Madness in 2004 and 2015, where the Eagles were 15 and 13 seeds, respectively.

EWU, which totaled 12 Big Sky regular-season wins along with fellow conference leaders Southern Utah and Weber State, beat Montana State 65-55 in Boise on Saturday night, earning a trip to the Big Dance.

The Eagles, ranked No. 113th in the NCAA NET rankings, had a truncated nonconference schedule that included three Quadrant 1 opponents, the highest of four tiers in NCAA Division I (347 total teams).

EWU lost to NET No. 34 Oregon 69-52, No. 44 Arizona 70-67 and No. 62 Saint Mary’s 80-75. The Eagles had late second-half leads in the Arizona and Saint Mary’s games.

The Eagles also had a late second-half lead in a 71-68 loss to Quadrant 3 Washington State (No. 102 ), when the Eagles used just six players due to coronavirus protocols.

EWU’s best win was a 75-63 victory against Quad 3 Southern Utah (No. 129 ), the No. 1 seed in the Big Sky Tournament. Its worst loss was a 78-76 upset at Northern Colorado (No. 263 ).

Fourth-year coach Legans’ squad left Boise on Sunday morning for Indianapolis. Because teams are required to quarantine upon arrival in Indianapolis as part of the tournament’s bubble protocol, there was no public viewing party in Cheney.

EWU and Kansas have one previous meeting in the 2007-08 season, when the Jayhawks handled the Eagles 85-47 at historic Allen Fieldhouse before going on to win a national championship.

“I know Self is going to do a good job of getting ready for us,” Legans said.” I am pretty sure they’re big and physical. They have always had good big guys.”