INDIANAPOLIS — The Kansas Jayhawks say they’ve grown as a team since a double-digit loss in January at Michigan State. They’ll find out how far they’ve come when they face the Spartans again in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals on Friday.
Michigan State defeated Kansas 75-62 on Jan. 10 in East Lansing, Mich., after the young Jayhawks fell behind 37-18 at halftime. Kansas center Cole Aldrich said things should be different now.
“We’ve matured a lot,” he said. “It was our second road game, so we didn’t quite understand everything about being on the road. We’ve learned so many different things from Coach (Bill Self) and really understood the game a little more.”
Kansas did just about everything wrong in that loss. The Jayhawks shot just 40 percent, got outrebounded 42-31 and got little production aside from Sherron Collins’ 25 points.
But Kansas bounced back to win 13 of its next 14 games, and eventually, the Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular-season title. Because of that success, Self doesn’t plan to make any major changes in his approach for the rematch.
“We may do ball screenings differently, guard the post a little bit differently, but it will all be in the scheme of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “What we need to do is execute better and certainly, we’ve got to rebound the basketball. That was something that they whipped us pretty good on the first time.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is impressed with Kansas, and particularly with Aldrich and Collins.
Collins, a junior guard, averages 18.9 points and was selected to the All-Big 12 team. Aldrich, a sophomore center, averages 14.8 points and 11 rebounds.
“I think you could argue Collins and Aldrich are two of the best players at their positions in the country,” Izzo said.
Aldrich had 13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks in the second-round win over Dayton. Izzo said the 6-foot-11 Aldrich’s long arms make him an exceptional talent.
“There’s 7-footers that seem 7 feet, and there’s 7-footers that seem 9 feet,” Izzo said. “He’s one of those 7-footers that seems 9 feet.”
Kansas feels fortunate to be in position to defend its title. Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers left for the NBA after last season, forcing this team to grow up quickly with young players. Kansas starts two freshmen, Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris, along with sophomores Aldrich and Brady Morningstar and Collins, a junior.
“We had such a great run last year with all of those guys,” Aldrich said. “With all of those guys leaving for the NBA or playing overseas, we are just excited to be here. It’s a Sweet 16, and this is where the most fun part of basketball will occur.”
While Kansas features two players prominently, Michigan State is balanced. Five players average at least eight points per game, but none average 15.
“I think it’s a fun system because you never know who’s going to step up,” Travis Walton, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, said. “I think it’s got to be tough to put out a scouting report on us. Every day, it could be a different leading scorer.”
Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten player of the year, averages 14.6 points. Izzo called Lucas a “poor man’s Chris Paul,” and said he’s similar to Collins, but not as strong.
“He can get from one end of the court to the other,” Izzo said. “He has great speed. I think he’s the fastest point guard I’ve ever had.”
Michigan State also had to make adjustments during the season. Raymar Morgan, a junior forward, missed three games and played limited minutes in six others after suffering through a run of illnesses.
“The biggest thing is he was having an incredible year,” Izzo said. “Definitely an All-Big Ten year, maybe a player of the year, up until he got sick.”
Morgan has struggled at times since his return. He has played a combined 37 minutes in two NCAA tournament games. He fouled out in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Robert Morris, then scored just three points in the second-round win over Southern California.
Izzo said that kind of performance can’t happen again on Friday.
“We need him,” Izzo said. “He’s one of our best players, I can promise you that. It’s hard to advance in this tournament if your best players aren’t playing well.”
Kansas, perhaps more than Michigan State, needs its stars to play well if the Jayhawks want to avoid a repeat of January’s blowout.
“We know tomorrow’s going to be a tough game,” Aldrich said. “They’re going to be aggressive, they’re going to really run in transition and play good defense. It’s going to take our best effort to be in the game tomorrow.”