INDIANAPOLIS – The stage is rare, but the task isn’t completely foreign for Eastern Washington.
When No. 14 seed EWU (16-7) takes on third-seeded Kansas (20-8) on Saturday in Indianapolis, it will be just the Eagles’ third NCAA Tournament appearance.
Fourth-year EWU head coach Shantay Legans, who played in the NCAA Tournament twice in the early 2000s at California, was an assistant on the previous EWU team (2015) that reached the Big Dance.
But outside of senior guards Jack Perry and Jacob Davison – freshmen when EWU went one-and-done at the inconsequential College Basketball Invitational in 2018 – nobody else on the Eagles’ roster has played in a game beyond the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
If the Eagles exhibit any nerves Saturday, it will be because of the millions of eyeballs glued to the team from the little Cheney school, not because of the Kansas brand.
Most of EWU’s roster has faced some of college basketball’s best teams over the past three seasons under dimmer, early-season nonconference lights, including Gonzaga, Oregon and Syracuse.
Those all resulted in double-digit losses, but the Eagles also took traditionally talented Arizona to the brink in Tucson in December in a 70-67 loss after leading most of the game.
Arizona, which missed the NCAA Tournament but had a solid NCAA NET ranking of 44, had many of the things that the Jayhawks have: length, athleticism and a roster full of dynamic, top-100 recruits.
“We hadn’t really been in that situation where we were playing a high-major team like Arizona, where we’re in the game and doing well,” EWU’s Tanner Groves said.
“And we were on the cusp of possibly winning that game.”
Groves believes the Eagles are capable of a similar performance against a Kansas team that dropped out of last week’s Big 12 Tournament due to coronavirus protocols.
The Jayhawks didn’t play or practice for nearly four days before preparing for EWU this week, but Kansas appeared to be playing its best basketball of the season before COVID-19 shifted its postseason.
Kansas won eight of its past nine games, including victories over NCAA Tournament teams Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and a team ranked No. 2 most of the season, Baylor.
Kansas’ Hall of Fame coach, Bill Self, has a pair of NBA-worthy guards in Ochai Agbaji (14.2 ppg) and Marcus Garrett (10.4 ppg, 4.4 and 3.7 ppg). Christian Braun, a 6-6 sophomore, averaged 9.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and nearly two assists, and provides several matchup problems.
The Jayhawks have formidable inside figures in 6-10 David McCormack (13.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 6-8 Jalen Wilson (12 ppg, 8.2 rpg), but only half of that duo will be ready.
McCormack, who tested positive last week, will be back in the lineup, but Wilson won’t return to the team until Monday.
EWU, a guard-heavy team that will need to rely on its experience, savvy and capable shooting if it wants to play the role of bracket buster, has won 13 of its past 14 games.
“It’s exciting to be able to coach against one of your living legends (Self) that you’ve looked up to for a long time,” Legans said. “Same for the players – they’re excited playing Kansas. … I’m excited to see if we can compete with the big dogs.”
With Wilson out and McCormack coming back after a nearly six-day layoff, Self said “it will certainly affect us defensively because we’ll be tight.”
Self’s Jayhawks will be looking to avoid upsets in the first round after the 2005 and 2006 NCAA tournaments, when the Jayhawks were shocked by No. 14 seed Bucknell and No. 13 seed Bradley, in succession.
Legans’ wide-open squad (78 ppg) ranks 28th in the country in tempo, but Kansas (73 ppg) can typically play big and small.
“They may do some things similar to us in some ways, but if you look around America, there’s not a lot of secrets out there,” Self said. “Everybody steals from everybody. I’ll probably steal a play from Eastern Washington moving forward because there’s one action I love that they run that could be good for us.”
EWU has been led by Tanner Groves, (16.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg), the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year; Kim Aiken Jr. (11.7 ppg, 8.5 rebounds); 6-7 stretch forward and Big Sky Reserve of the Year Tyler Robertson (11.3 ppg); Michael Meadows (10.4 ppg); Jacob Davison (10 ppg); Jacob Groves (8.7 ppg); and four-year starting guard Jack Perry (50% from 3-point range).
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