The Kansas Jayhawks return to the court on Saturday to take on the Eastern Washington Eagles in a West Region first-round NCAA Tournament game in Indianapolis. Kansas hasn’t played since having to withdraw from the Big 12 tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test on the team last Friday.
Kansas (20-8) is the third seed in the West Region and making its 31st consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the longest active streak and best of all-time. The Jayhawks have earned at least one win in the NCAA Tournament in their last 13 appearances.
Eastern Washington is making its third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and its first since 2015. The Eagles have never won a game in the NCAA Tournament in their previous two appearances.
Coach Shantay Legans’ squad has won four straight and 13 of its last 14 games. Eastern Washington (16-7) tied for second place in the regular season in the Big Sky before winning the conference tournament over the weekend.
The Jayhawks are not going to be 100% healthy for this one, with coach Bill Self having to go without a pair of key players. Second-leading scorer David McCormack (13.4 points, 6.1 rebounds) missed last week’s Big 12 tournament, and the thought is he won’t be available for this contest either.
The junior forward is shooting 51.1% from the field this season and also leading the team with 1.0 blocks per game. He and sophomore swingman Tristan Enaruna both missed the Big 12 tournament win over Oklahoma.
Kansas’ third-leading scorer and top rebounder, freshman forward Jalen Wilson, is likely out for at least a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament, depending on how long the Jayhawks stick around. Wilson, averaging 12.1 points and 8.2 rebounds, tested positive during the Big 12 tournament, causing the Jayhawks’ withdrawal.
One player who will be on the court is junior guard Ochai Agbaji, the team’s leading scorer at 14.2 points per game, who has hit a team-best 74 3-pointers this season. Also key for the Jayhawks in this one is senior point guard Marcus Garrett, who is averaging 10.4 points and a team-best 3.7 assists per contest.
Area of Strength
While the Jayhawks are seeing their top rebounders sidelined, the Eagles will have a pair of players who are each grabbing more than eight boards a game this season. Junior swingman Kim Aiken Jr. leads Eastern Washington and the Big Sky with 8.5 per game, while Tanner Groves is second in both with 8.1 per contest.
Groves, a junior forward, is also fifth in the Big Sky in scoring, averaging 16.4 points per game, and second in field-goal percentage, hitting 55.7% of his shots from the field. He had 14 points and 14 rebounds in the Eagles’ win in the Big Sky tournament title game over Montana State.
Groves’ younger brother, sophomore guard Jacob Groves, had a big conference tournament as well, averaging 18.0 points in the semifinal and championship game wins. On the season, the younger Groves is averaging 8.7 points per game.
Aiken is second on the team in scoring at 11.7 points per game, while sophomore guard Tyler Robertson adds 11.3 points and a team-high 3.1 assists per game. Both players have hit 34 3-pointers this season to lead the Eagles.
The Jayhawks will feel the loss of McCormack and Wilson in this one, especially in the paint. Look for the Eagles to try to crash the offensive glass to get second-chance points with their top rebounders.
Still, Bill Self didn’t earn Hall of Fame credentials by losing because he’s missing a couple of players. Eastern Washington will keep this close for a while, but we fully expect the Jayhawks to pull away in the end.