Tom Keegan: Kansas up to challenge of playing in toughest region

Kansas guard Malik Newman (14) pulls in Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa (22) for a chat as he checks into the game for the first time during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Sure, the Midwest is easily the toughest region in the NCAA tournament. True, Duke is the best No. 2 seed in the field, Michigan State the top No. 3. And next to Virginia Tech, there isn’t a tougher No. 8 seed on the board.

Five days ago, I would have wondered at the relevance of the strength of the Blue Devils and Spartans because I would not have been confident of the Jayhawks’ chances of advancing from Wichita to Omaha.

Then three days in Kansas City changed everything.

The Jayhawks have the toughest path to San Antonio of any of the four No. 1 seeds, and if and when Udoka Azubuike returns, he’ll be slowed by a sprained MCL of the left knee. Those are factors, but not strong enough ones to dent KU’s confidence.

Mitch Lightfoot captured the mood of the team in the locker room after Kansas won the Big 12 tournament with an 81-70 victory over West Virginia.

“Why not us?” Lightfoot said of the possibility of winning it all. “We’ve defied all the odds. It’s just another odd to defy, and I’m pretty sure that as a team, that if we play our best ball, we can do it.”

The financial situation of Billy Preston’s car led to him never joining the team, which seemed a good reason to look elsewhere for a Big 12 regular-season champ.

Udoka Azubuike was scratched from the Big 12 tourney by a sprained MCL of the left knee, and Kansas again didn’t seem like the wise pick.

“Udoka goes down and everyone thinks the house is burning down,” Lightfoot said.

Kansas responded with three consecutive double-digit victories and looked awfully good doing it.

How far can this team go?

“I think really far, especially when we get Dok back,” Mykhailiuk said. “We know that we have guys in the rotation who can step up. Silvio (De Sousa) showed everybody he can really play.”

De Sousa’s emergence means Azubuike can come out of the game more frequently, which should reduce his fouls, many of which come when he runs short of breath.

Malik Newman shed the baggage that comes with trying to figure out how to fit in on a talented team, let it fly, and shot his way to Most Outstanding Player of the Big 12 tournament.

“Malik did what we all wanted to see,” Mykhailiuk said.

If Kansas plays well, it can play with anybody in the country. In a region so loaded, Kansas also could play well and lose.

The good news for the local cagers: If the Jayhawks advance to the Elite Eight, they won’t have to play both Duke and Michigan State, just one or the other, barring a sleeper coming out of the bottom of the Midwest bracket.

For KU, the first tough test arrives in the second round in the form of either Seton Hall or North Carolina State.

Seton Hall shapes up as the tougher matchup for Kansas, thanks to 6-foot-10, 245-pound senior center Angel Delgado from the Dominican Republic. A handful in the post and on the boards, Delgado is tied with Duke’s Marvin Bagley III for fifth in the nation with 21 double-doubles. He averages 13.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

As does potential Sweet 16 foe Auburn, Seton Hall does a terrific job of hammering the offensive boards, and Kansas at times has had trouble keeping teams off the offensive glass.

Tough matchups populate the Midwest region, but it pays to look at the flip side as well: There isn’t a team in the nation that doesn’t view Kansas as a tough matchup.