Maryland takes on No. 1 seed Kansas in a Sweet 16 matchup in Louisville, Kent., March 24, and to gain more insight into the Jayhawks we spoke to Kansas City Star beat reporter Jesse Newell. Our question-and-answer session with him can be viewed below:
Terrapin Times: Obviously this Kansas-Maryland matchup is going to conjure memories of the 2002 game between the two programs, when the Terps knocked off the Jayhawks in the Final Four. Have KU fans broached that 2002 game and what are the feelings about Maryland stemming from that game? Any ghosts of Juan Dixon talk?
Jesse Newell: I haven't heard too much talk about it, to be honest. That was a painful loss at the time — especially because it was assumed that the winner of that game was going to beat Indiana in the title game — but anything dating back to coach Roy Williams isn't too much of a talking point any more.
Not to mention, KU has had many more crushing NCAA Tournament losses since then, which has included upset defeats against Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU. Heck, even ol' Roy's losses to Arizona in 1997, Rhode Island in 1998 and Syracuse in 2003 probably would conjure up more ghosts now than Maryland, which had a talented team that was definitely better than KU that night.
TT: Another angle here is obviously Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon pitted against his alma mater. What are KU fans' thoughts on Turgeon in general, and what are they saying about him now heading into the March 24 matchup?
JN: I think it depends on who you talk to. For some fans, he'd be the top choice to replace Bill Self at KU if he ever did leave for an NBA opening or otherwise. Others would still say he hasn't proven himself as an elite coach yet.
I do think that, if Turgeon did want to eventually land the KU job, it was smart of him to go away from the Big 12, as getting beaten by the Jayhawks every year in College Station a few years back wasn't helping his reputation among KU fans, even if his teams were less talented. I have no idea if this has changed since then, but while in the Big 12, Turgeon also gained the reputation as a bit of a whiner with KU fans, and I've heard that descriptor brought up quite a bit when people talk about him.
TT: How is this current Maryland team being viewed in Kansas? Are they seen as an underachieving group that won't pose much of a problem? Or a potential challenge given the Terps' talent level?
JN: I definitely think Maryland will have KU's respect. If I heard correctly from social media, analyst Doug Gottlieb said on Selection Sunday that Maryland had more talent than Kansas, and perceived slights like that have been used as motivation by KU's players before.
Guard Wayne Selden said after the UConn game that one reason his team defended so well was because the players watched film and knew the Huskies could be dangerous. I think KU's players will be quick to give the same credit to the Terrapins.
TT: Obviously Kansas is red hot and has won 17 straight games. They ran through the Big 12 once again and seem to be positioned for a title run. What's making this Jayhawks team click in general? Is it the veteran leaders? The team's general cohesiveness? Or just a growing confidence stemming from the depth and leadership?
JN: A little bit of all of the above. Everything really fell in place with KU after coach Bill Self called a meeting with his team's four best players in late January. At the time, Self had a revolving door at the team's 5 position, and he decided to ask those four guys who they thought should play in that spot. They picked Landen Lucas — a smart, big-bodied center who isn't blessed with super athleticism — and the team has gone 17-1 since then.
Lucas has been a rebounding monster and also a guy that has improved his rim-protection skills while allowing the Jayhawks to play defense without having to trap the post. In that same meeting, Self also challenged sophomore guard Devonte' Graham to be the team's emotional leader. He's been playing at an all-conference-type level since, making 46 percent of his threes in Big 12 play while giving this soft-spoken team a bit of on-court swag.
TT: If Kansas were to be knocked off, what would probably be the Jayhawks' downfall? Are there any inherent shortcomings a team like Maryland could potentially expose?
JN: If you got Self in any honest moment — and he talked about this plenty earlier this year — he would tell you one of his main concerns defensively is keeping talented point guards out of the lane. Both Graham and Frank Mason have played great defense this year (both made the all-Big 12 defensive team), but while KU was struggling in January, they had issues surrendering dribble penetration while not doing a great job of guarding ball-screen actions on the perimeter. They should know what's coming Thursday, then.
KU's biggest fear has to be the play-making of Melo Trimble. The Jayhawks don't have much point-guard depth behind Graham and Mason, and even those guys have had issues sliding against super-quick guys. KU also isn't a team that avoids fouls well, which means Trimble has the potential for a big game ... and he's Maryland's best chance at an upset.
TT: How does this Jayhawks team compare to the great ones of Kansas past? And given how well they've performed this year, would it be a disappointment if this squad didn't return to Lawrence, Kans., with a title in tow?
JN: This is clearly Self's best team since the 2011-12 run to the national championship game, and this squad's depth would probably give it a slight edge over that one. To me, Self's two best teams were 2008 (national championship) and 2010 (32-2 regular season, loss to Northern Iowa), but this team could have a case for third place while competing against a 2011 team that lost to VCU, a 2007 team that fell to UCLA and the aforementioned 2012 team.
For the second question ... I think a Final Four is the expectation for this year's team, especially with consecutive round of 32 losses this season. Obviously, fans would be ecstatic with a national title — and KU's only three other NCAA Tournament championships came in leap years — but most are smart enough to know that it's difficult to win in one-and-done tournaments, even if you're the top overall seed. Remember also that Self hasn't racked up Final Four appearance while at KU; he has two in 12 seasons, which is a lower number than I think most would guess.
The Jayhawks were relieved last week to get past their first-weekend jinx, but I think they understand that with the veteran team they have, a loss before the Final Four would make the team's postseason seem like a disappointment.