CHICAGO — As Kansas prepared to face Providence in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, Jayhawks coach Bill Self reluctantly acknowledged his team’s improvement on defense.
“I’m not exactly giddy about it yet because we haven’t been as consistently good,” Self said Thursday. “But I think people that follow us would say we’ve been a different team defensively the last month.”
The Jayhawks had struggled to stop opponents in losses in January and February, allowing 80 points to Kentucky and Baylor, 79 to Texas and 75 to Texas Tech. But since a 74-64 loss to TCU on March 1, KU had buckled down, allowing an average of 64.1 points during a seven-game winning streak entering Friday night.
Self was a bit giddier after Kansas’ defense propelled it to a 66-61 win over Providence at the United Center. The Jayhawks held the Friars to tournament-low totals in the first half and just 33.8% shooting for the game, as they advanced to the Elite Eight for the ninth time under Self but the first time since 2018.
Kansas, which passed Kentucky and become college basketball’s all-time winningest program with its 2,354th victory, is the only No. 1 seed remaining in the tournament.
“Overall, it’s getting better,” Self said of his defense. “Our first-shot defense was pretty good. They hurt us on the glass a little bit in the first half, but I do think we’re more connected defensively than we have been all year.”
Kansas improved to 23-0 when holding its opponent to fewer than 70 points. The Jayhawks recorded 11 blocks, four by All-American Ochai Agbaji, matching their season high and recording their most in the NCAA tournament since 2012, when they also had 11 against NC State in the Sweet 16.
The relentless pressure early led to Providence missing 21 of its first 25 shot attempts, including its first 11 shots from 3-point range. The Friars tied for the lowest first-half scoring total in the NCAA tournament (17 points) and posted the worst shooting percentage (20) in the event. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Providence made just 1 of 24 contested shot attempts.
“The first half was about as well as we could guard,” Self said. “I told the guys at halftime, ‘When the other team shoots it like they shot it and how we guarded, to only be up nine, that’s not a great sign. We made them play poor, they made us play poor, but if the other team can’t score, you’re not going to lose very often.'”
Kansas needed the defensive surge because of its own offensive struggles. Agbaji scored just two first-half points and five for the game, failing to eclipse 40% shooting for the fourth straight game. Junior forward David McCormack did not score until 10:44 remained in the game, but finished with eight points.
The Jayhawks never truly could pull away and briefly lost the lead on a Noah Horchler layup with 5:49 to play. But sophomore forward Jalen Wilson responded with a three-point play 28 seconds later, and Kansas never trailed again. Wilson (16 points) and Remy Martin (season-high 23 points) were the only Kansas players to score in double figures.
“If it gets ugly and it comes to defensive rebounding and playing like that, if we win like that every game I’m not really trippin’,” Wilson said. “Like [Self] said, if our offense is bad, we need to make them play worse than us.”
Self wasn’t as pleased with Kansas’ defense in the second half, as Providence scored 44 points on 48.5% shooting. But Kansas found enough offense when it needed to, including a beautifully executed alley-oop from Christian Braun to Agbaji, who recorded only his second field goal to put his team ahead 57-50 with 2:57 left.
“They did a great job,” Self said of Providence’s defense on Agbaji. “They took away backdoors, they took away lobs, they guarded him with 6-foot-6 guys with length. … We can look at it as a shooting slump, and I guess it is. But when you only take eight shots I don’t know if I ever consider that a slump.
“I know one thing: The lid will come off eventually. And when it does, it will be good for KU people.”
Al Durham led Providence with 21 points, but no other player scored more than 10.
“They amped it up,” Durham said of Kansas. “They had a lot of ball pressure, they were switching and trying to make it hard on us to run our stuff. It took us a little bit to get adjusted to how they were defending.”
The Friars were aiming for their first Elite Eight appearance since 1997. They fell one win shy of tying the single-season team record but still captured their first regular-season Big East title.
“This was one hell of a season,” coach Ed Cooley said. “We got beat by a great team, a really, really good team. Nothing to be ashamed of. I’m sad, I’m heartbroken, but I’m not going to let this one loss define the type of season we had.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism