DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — 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 during an easy 96-68 victory over Howard on Thursday in a West Region first round game.
Self is still recovering from a recent heart procedure.
Gradey Dick had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the freshman’s first NCAA Tournament game. K.J. Adams Jr. scored 13 points and Dajuan Harris Jr. added 11 points for the Jayhawks (28-7), who will play the winner of the Arkansas against Illinois game in the second round on Saturday.
Kansas, which has won 16 consecutive first round games, is trying to become the first repeat NCAA winner in 16 years.
Shy Odom had 15 points and eight rebounds for the Bison (22-13), who were making the program’s first tournament appearance since 1992.
The Jayhawks started their NCAA-record 33rd consecutive tournament appearance with assistant coach Norm Roberts running the show — a strange sight without Self shouting orders from the bench. The 60-year-old Self, who’s in his 20th season at Kansas, underwent a standard heart 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 Quad 1 games that the NCAA categorizes for selection criteria was unmatched in the country by a new-look team that lost most of its best players from last year’s championships squad.
Kansas is not that deep, but the Jayhawks move and share the ball at a dizzying pace that was ultimately too much for the Bison to keep up with.
Howard took the lead five times in the second 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 Kevin McCullar Jr. 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’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.
Wearing their Black History Month jerseys with green trim and a red script “The Mecca” on the front — in reference to Howard’s nickname as the country’s most prominent historically Black university — the Bison took the court with plenty of confidence.
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.
Coach Kenneth Blakeney, whose team went 4-29 in his first season in 2019-20, subbed hockey style in the first half with five-man units to keep his team fresh. The Bison’s game against Kentucky in November — a 95-63 loss — gave them a taste of this level of competition, but the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions weren’t able to match the speed and athleticism the Jayhawks boast.
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 Texas Tech transfer McCullar and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in the point guard Harris.
Dick went 7 for 13 from the floor and 3 for 5 from 3-point range to set the Kansas freshman record for made 3-pointers in a season, besting Jeff Boschee.
Blakeney raved at his news conference on Wednesday about the rich and fascinating history at Howard, reeling off a list of famous alumni that includes Vice President Kamala Harris, class of 1986. She watched the game with her husband from a suite at Wells Fargo Arena. When she was shown on the video board, the boos — Kansas is a Republican-leaning state, after all — drowned out the applause.
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 J.P. Pegues had just hit a 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left to give the underdog Paladins the lead. Another outcry came when No. 13 seed Furman sealed the victory, a less-disruptive reaction because it was during timeout.
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Dave Campbell, The Associated Press