CHICAGO (AP) — When Ochai Agbaji and Kansas are rolling, they can pile up points in a hurry.
In case that doesn’t happen in the Sweet 16 against Providence, the Jayhawks think they have another way to advance.
“It’s easier to make a team play bad than it is to go out make shots every game,” Kansas guard Christian Braun said Thursday.
The NCAA Tournament returns to Chicago this weekend, and the Midwest Region semifinals feature four teams that know a little something about defense. The top-seeded Jayhawks take on Nate Watson and the Friars on Friday night, followed by Iowa State and Miami in a matchup of double-digit seeds.
The Cyclones lead the Sweet 16 in scoring defense (51.5 points per game), field-goal percentage defense (33.3%), steals (24) and turnovers forced (36), according to Sportradar. The focus on defense under first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger has powered the Big 12 school to the second weekend of the NCAA tourney after it won just two games last season.
“We know they’re real scrappy,” Miami guard Kameron McGusty said. “They’ve got good guards that defend. They’ve got bigs that are not only getting steals but blocking shots and being disruptive. They’re a real disruptive team.”
The swarming Hurricanes recorded 22 steals in their first two NCAA games — second only to the Cyclones — allowing their opponents to shoot 37.8% from the field. Continuing their improvement from the end of the season, the Jayhawks are allowing 34.2% shooting in the NCAA tourney. Providence is yielding 54 points per game, and the No. 4 seed limited Richmond to 1-for-22 shooting from 3-point range during its 79-51 victory in the second round.
“It’s going to be hard to score on them. It’s going to be hard for them to score on us,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said.
No. 11 seed Iowa State (22-12) is looking for its first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2000. It hasn’t cracked 60 points in almost three weeks, but — thanks to its hard-nosed defense — it’s still playing at the very end of March.
In No. 10 seed Miami (25-10), the Cyclones face another school that loves to jump in passing lanes and prevent their opponent from running its usual sets. The Hurricanes have 15 games with double-figure steals this season, including 10 in their 79-61 win against second-seeded Auburn on Sunday.
“A team that can really turn you over,” Otzelberger said. “And we need to do a great job of having toughness with the basketball, because those turnovers turn into points really quickly for them on the other end.”
Kansas (30-6) has won seven straight since a 74-64 loss at TCU on March 1, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018. It is tied with Kentucky for most wins in NCAA Division I history with 2,353.
The Jayhawks are known more for their offensive skills, led by Big 12 Player of the Year Agbaji, but their defense has picked up of late.
“We’re guarding better now,” coach Bill Self said. “I’m not exactly giddy about it yet because we haven’t been as consistent, as consistently good. But I think people that follow us would say we’ve been a different team defensively the last month than we were prior to that.”
Providence got an assist when it comes to having some extra support on hand for the Sweet 16. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft let the Friars use the team plane to shuttle some staff, family and donors to Chicago.
Cooley said he talked to Kraft on Wednesday night and thanked him for his generosity.
“I don’t know how many people would do that for a small college to literally send their custom plane, their logoed plane,” Cooley said Thursday. “And I’m pretty sure a lot of our fans will be on it. They’re big Patriot fans. I love football. My team looks like a football team. We’re not very pretty.”
Self was at least aware of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson’s shirtless celebration after the Cougars beat Illinois in the second round of the NCAA tourney.
Just don’t expect him to do anything similar.
“I have family and friends that I would like to continue to speak to me throughout the remainder of my life,” Self said. “And that I would not do that just so I would lose that relationship due to the embarrassment I would cause them. So that will not happen here.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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