SALT LAKE CITY — Inexperience is rarely associated with the Kansas Jayhawks. The storied program — making its 30th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance — began Thursday’s first-round game against Northeastern with four freshmen and a transfer from Memphis on the floor. None of the Kansas starters at Vivint Arena had any previous experience in the Big Dance.
That all changed when the Jayhawks got comfortable and claimed an 87-53 win over the Huskies. They trailed 9-7 at one point before pulling away.
“There was nerves in the first couple of minutes, as you could see, when they made those couple of shots,” said guard Quentin Grimes, one of the four freshmen in the starting lineup. “But I feel like after the first time out, everybody kind of settled down.”
Grimes added that when the Jayhawks stuck to their game plan, everything started flowing offensively.
“We had to get the first few minutes out of the way,” he said. “And then everybody just played basketball how they know how to play.”
Kansas improved to 26-9 overall entering Saturday’s second-round game against Auburn. It’s been quite a journey for the Jayhawks, who have now won 13 straight NCAA Tournament openers. Junior center Udoka Azubuike was sidelined with a hand injury after nine games, while senior guard LaGerald Vick and sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa are out for different reasons. Vick took a leave of absence and De Sousa was ruled ineligible.
The roster turmoil led to the current starting cast of freshmen Grimes, Ochai Agbaji, Devon Dotson and David McCormack, as well as junior Dedric Lawson. The latter sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, missing out on a Final Four run.
Lawson scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against Northeastern. Dotson topped the newcomers with 18 points.
“All the freshmen are really enjoying it now that we have that first game out of the way,” Grimes said. “Now we can focus on just playing basketball and just for the ultimate title, get to the Final Four and hopefully just win every game.”
The first outing, though, proved to be a learning experience of sorts.
“I thought we played better as the game went on,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who acknowledged there were some jitters but the Jayhawks tried to take them out on the defensive end. “I think we were pretty good at doing that yesterday. But I think they all handled it pretty well.”
Although lacking in tournament experience, Self insists Kansas won’t use it as reason for not succeeding.Comment on this story
“I do think that at our place it’s a little different than a lot of places. There’s some places like that. We don’t use youth an as excuse,” Self said. “So regardless of what’s happened to us this year, if you’re out there you still have to deliver and perform. Our guys have accepted that pretty well."
Earlier in the week, McCormack put things in perspective when it comes to the young starters.
"I don't feel like we're freshmen any more, expectations change. The more experience you have on the court, the better you have a feel for the game," he said. "So things become easier and there is a better flow. When we face adversity, it brings us closer together as a team and unites us."