By Austin Lawton | @AJLawton1
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO — Kansas established itself as the winningest program in men’s NCAA basketball history, but the history won’t stop there for the Jayhawks. The No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (31-6) will play in their 23rd Elite 8 against the No.10 Miami Hurricanes (26-10), on Sunday afternoon. A win would place Kansas in its 16th Final Four. Miami is playing in its first ever Elite 8.
The Jayhawks are 3-5 in the Elite 8 in the Bill Self era. The program’s last regional final appearance came in in 2018 when Kansas defeated Duke in overtime. Current Kansas seniors Chris Tehan and Mitch Lightfoot both played in Kansas’ last Final Four appearance in 2018. Lightfoot was a part of the 2017 Elite 8 run.
The matchup on Sunday will be the fifth time the Jayhawks and Hurricanes have faced off. The last meeting was in January 1991, 31 years ago. Kansas leads the series 3-1.
Leading Kansas into the Elite 8 is senior guard Remy Martin. The Arizona State transfer is averaging 19.3 points, 3.6 assists, and five rebounds over the first three games of the tournament, all coming off of the bench. Martin scored a season high 23 points against Providence in the Sweet 16, 10 points coming in the first half.
“It feels good to go out there and play my game,” Martin said. “I think that all the work that I put in the offseason, I’m now able to showcase because I’m fully healthy. My teammates and my coaches are allowing me and making my confidence higher and higher each game.
“I’m just being myself out there,” Martin added. “I’m happy that I’m healthy, thanks to the trainers and everybody who has stuck with me, my family and everything. I’m just happy to go out there and play my game the way I know how to play it. These guys have been extremely helpful throughout the whole process. So a big credit to my teammates and my coaches for just believing in me.”
Sophomore forward Jalen Wilson is also coming up big for the Jayhawks. , in addition to Martin’s important scoring efforts, Wilson is averaging 13.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in the NCAA tournament.
Ochai Agbaji, the All-American senior guard who has led the Jayhawks this season in scoring, has become less effective in the tournament. Agbaji, who has averaged 18.9 points and shooting 46% for the season, has averaged 10.3 points and is shooting 33% in three NCAA games. In the regional semifinal victory over Providence, Agbaji scored a season low five points, with 0-for-4 shooting beyond the arc, also a season low. A season-high four blocks against Providence shows that the senior guard offers more than just scoring.
“Ochai, he’s an all around player,” Martin said of his teammate. “That’s why he’s an All-American. He helps us in so many things on the court that people may not see on a stat sheet.”
Wilson added, “Team’s know who he is. When we are in games and they want to play him certain ways, and try not to let him get the ball, it opens lanes for us. I think that helps our team so much because when teams try to adjust and play like that, it allows for us to get the ball moving more. When you have a leader that’s so unselfish like he is, it makes us flow so much better.”
Kansas’ shooting woes continued in the game against Providence, but a strong defensive outing made up for it. The Jayhawks shot 39.3% from the field and 14.3% from beyond the arc on Friday night. Eleven blocks against Providence tied Kansas’ season high. Self says that lid is going to have to come off sooner, rather than later.
“I thought last night the first half is the best we’ve played defensively,” Self said. “It’s probably as poor as we played offensively too. Team goes 7-of-35 and you’re up nine at the half. It’s probably not a great recipe for success, because you know the tables will turn eventually. The law of averages will come closer to prevailing.
“And it did in the second half and we had to fire our butts off to win,” Self added. “To win at this level and from this point in the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to do both. We’re still waiting for the lid to come off. We believe that will happen tomorrow.”
Former Jayhawk Charlie Moore, a Miami senior, will go up against his former team on Sunday afternoon. “He’s playing his tail off,” Self said. “I think Charlie may have the best vision of anybody left in the tournament. He sees a lot of things. Charlie’s talented. He’s clever. He can get his own shot. He can certainly create for others and he’s crafty. He’s very crafty.
“He can do little things that get you off balance that allow him to get his shoulders past you and things like that,” Self added. “Charlie was a good player for us, but Charlie has become a terrific player.”
Miami has outscored its opponents in points off turnovers in all three NCAA tournament games this year, averaging 17.6 points off of opponent turnovers, which will pose a big threat for the Jayhawks. Miami previously defeated USC and Duke to get to the Elite 8, both teams being known for their reputation of being hard to beat.
“I think the fact that they can score off turning people over is what we have to be concerned about,” Self said. “They can score in a lot of ways, and of course they can make hard shots.”
Self and Miami coach Jim Larrañaga showed mutual respect as coaches and as men.
“When I think of his teams, I think of well-coached, but I also think of freedom,” Self said of Larrañaga. “Seems to me like he always has his teams playing with joy, with a free mind and aggressive offensively, which I think is a great thing to have as a coach.”
Larrañaga spoke fondly of Self. “I’ve known Bill a long time,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for him. He’s done a fantastic job. His record in the Big 12, with winning regular season championships, is unlike any other coach in the history of college basketball. We’ve had the opportunity to spend time together. Sometimes we’d run into each other on the road recruiting. He’s a great guy. I admire him and have great respect for (him) and his staff.”