DES MOINES, Iowa – Jalen Wilson had 20 points and seven rebounds for No. 1 seed and defending national champion Kansas, which allowed absent and recovering coach Bill Self to rest a bit more comfortably during a 96-68 victory over Howard on Thursday in a West Region first-round game.
Self is recovering from a heart procedure.
“He wished us good luck and told us to go out and do what we do,” Wilson said.
Gradey Dick had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the freshman’s first NCAA Tournament game, his first career double-double. K.J. Adams Jr. scored 13 points and Dajuan Harris Jr. added 11 points, seven assists and four steals for the Jayhawks (28-7), who will play No. 8 seed Arkansas or ninth-seeded Illinois in the second round on Saturday.
Kansas, which has won 16 consecutive first-round games, is aiming to become the first repeat national champion in 16 years.
Shy Odom had 15 points and eight rebounds and Steve Settle III added 13 points for the Bison (22-13), who were making the program’s first tournament appearance since 1992 in front of Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna.
The Jayhawks started their NCAA-record 33rd consecutive tournament appearance with assistant coach Norm Roberts running the show. The 60-year-old Self, who’s in his 20th season at Kansas, had a procedure to treat blocked arteries in his heart last week that prevented him from coaching in the Big 12 Tournament.
The Jayhawks lost in the Big 12 title game to Texas, but their 15-6 record in Quadrant 1 games that the NCAA categorizes for selection criteria was unmatched in the country, an impressive season from a new-look team that lost most of its best players from last year.
The Jayhawks won the regular-season title in a stacked conference, a testament to Self’s acumen and the versatility of this team led by the Big 12 Player of the Year in Wilson, a rising star in Dick, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in point guard Harris, and Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar Jr.
“The Big 12 prepared us for moments like this and games like this,” forward K.J. Adams Jr. said.
The Jayhawks aren’t that deep, but they move and share the ball at a dizzying pace that was ultimately too much for the Bison to keep up with – although they tried.
“They played faster than I think even we thought they would,” Roberts said.
Howard took the lead five times in the first half, but Kansas always snapped back – often with a well-placed hand in a passing lane for a steal and a fast-break finish. Then there were the alley-oops, with Harris and McCullar each delivering a textbook lob off the drive to Ernest Udeh Jr. for a rim-jarring dunk in the first half. Harris found Adams for one, too.
Howard totaled 18 turnovers and missed 15 of 20 shots from 3-point range in the second half.
“There was a part of it where I was pretty exhausted, but those are the most fun games when you’re going up and down, and anything can happen,” Dick said.
Howard’s rare appearance on the big stage came exactly five years after UMBC’s takedown of Virginia, the only time a No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1. The Bison were the 149th team to try.
Coach Kenneth Blakeney, whose team went 4-29 in his first season in 2019-20, brought a confident team. Elijah Hawkins hit an early 3-pointer and pointed a finger to his forearm to signal ice in his veins. Kobe Dickson flexed his right arm after muscling in a layup. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions just weren’t able to match the Jayhawks’ speed and athleticism.
“Wen you play a team like Kansas, they capitalize on all of our mistakes,” Settle said. “We left a lot of meat on the bone in the first half.”
Dick went 3 for 5 from 3-point range to break the Kansas freshman record for made 3-pointers (82 and counting) in a season, besting Jeff Boschee (1998-99).
“He played with great confidence out there,” Wilson said.
Dick was startled by a sudden roar from the crowd a split-second after he swished a free throw late in the first half. What was the big deal? The end of the Furman-Virginia game was on the video board above the court, and the Paladins had just hit a late 3-pointer for the lead. Another cheer followed when No. 13 seed Furman sealed the victory, a less disruptive reaction because it was during timeout.