Into the Madness

OMAHA, NEB. — After 34 games, a conference championship and a postseason tournament title, Kansas is ready to start the madness. KU's road to the Final Four begins here in Omaha as the No. 1 seed Jayhawks face No. 16 Portland State on Thursday at 11:25 a.m. at the Qwest Center Omaha.

The Vikings (23-9. 14-2 in Big Sky) won the Big Sky regular-season championship and whipped Northern Arizona, 67-51, in the postseason league tournament last Wednesday to advance to the Big Dance.

KU (31-3) and Portland State have never met before, although the Jayhawks are 9-0 against current members of the Big Sky Conference. The ‘Hawks beat two Big Sky teams (Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington) this season in Lawrence by a combined 79 points.

The Vikings are riding a five-game winnings streak, and have won 14 of their last 15 games. Portland State scored a whopping 108 points versus Montana on March 1, the most points the Vikings had tallied in 30 years.

KU coach Bill Self is very impressed with KU’s opponent.

“After watching tape, I told (the players), how are these guys a 16 seed?” Self said. “They do a lot of the same things we do. They’re very, very balanced. They don’t rely on one or two guys to get all their points. They play fast, they share the ball, all of them can pass. Your 6-11 center (Scott Morrison) has 35 to 40 assists for the year. All of them can stretch the defense from the perimeter. They’re a hard team to guard.”

“I really like their team. That’s not coach-speak,” Self added.

This is a deep team which can indeed shoot the deep ball. Portland State shoots 39.4 percent from three-point range, jacking up 22.6 treys a games. Eight players on the roster have made 17 or more three-pointers. The Vikings average 74.2 points and have 10 players averaging at least 11 minutes per game.

It all starts with 5-6 junior point guard wonder Jeremiah Dominguez, the Big Sky Player of the Year. He sets the tone with a team-best 14.2 points, 82 three-pointers (2.6 per game), 4.1 assists, 62 steals, 43.9 three-point shooting percentage and 82.1 free-throw percentage.

Portland State has other weapons as well. Six-foot-four senior shooting guard Deonte Huff (6-4), the MVP of the Big Sky Tournament and first-team All-Conference selection, averages 13.9 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds. Senior center Morrison ranks next in scoring (10.6 ppg and team-best and 51 blocks), followed by junior guard Andre Murray (9.2 ppg), sophomore forward Kyle Coston (5.9 ppg), senior guard Dupree Lucas (5.6 ppg), sophomore forward Tyrell Mara (4.7 ppg) and sophomore forward Julius Thomas (4.0 ppg).

Like Self, the KU players like what they see from the Vikings on tape.

“I think the whole starting five stood out,” said senior forward Darnell Jackson. “It’s a lot of tools those guys have that other guys don’t have. Watching Huff and Dominguez play, those guys ae great with the ball. And all their post players who shoot the ball from outside the three-point line (the 6-8 Coston is second on the team with 38 treys), they can stretch the defense or get in inside. It’s a lot of things they have that we have to be ready for.”

Self believes KU will be ready for the 11:25 a.m. game after a grueling last weekend in Kansas City, when the Jayhawks captured the Big 12 Tournament Championship.

“We’re fine,” Self said. “We had a good practice yesterday, spirited. Today, we had energy (at practice). We’ll get a good rest tonight. For whatever reason if we don’t play well, it won’t be because of the time.”

Senior guard Russell Robinson doesn’t believe the early start will be a factor.

“I really don’t think about it,” Robinson said. “Those games are really tough to get up for as far as atmosphere in the arena. But we’re close to home, we got a lot of fans. Hopefully, they can do a good job to set the tone and have (us feed off of that).”

Junior guard Mario Chalmers, for one, believes KU has a lot to prove  in Omaha despite its No. 1 seed.

“We’ve been overlooked kind of the whole season,” Chalmers said. “When people talk about the best two teams or the best teams, you always hear about North Carolina or Memphis, or maybe even Tennessee or UCLA. Not many people say Kansas is the best team in the nation right now. We feel in our heart we’re the best team.”

Self certainly likes his team’s momentum after a strong three weeks, where the Jayhawks won seven straight after losing two out of three games.

“I think we’re playing our best ball,” Self said. “I would hope that helps prepares us for this weekend. ... We’re excited being in Omaha and having the opportunity to play only three hours from home. It’s a great reward to anybody that participates in college basketball to have the opportunity to play in this tournament.”

And Self knows a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed.

“It will happen (sometime),” Self said. “But certainly I hope it’s delayed for the near future.”

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