Shortly before his Jayhawks strode onto the Intrust Bank Arena court for their open practice, coach Bill Self renewed his oft-repeated hope that his players keep a light bounce in their step despite the pressures of NCAA Tournament competition: “Just go out, have fun and let’s enjoy the moment, and let’s play with joy and passion. Play with a free mind.”
When they emerged from the arena’s wings a few moments later, the Jayhawks were greeted with an instant lesson in how to enjoy the moment and embrace the fun: Wichita schools on Wednesday morning bused thousands of school children to the arena, and they lit the place with an energy unprecedented in the sedate history of NCAA Tournament open practices.
Dozens or perhaps hundreds of long yellow buses clogged the streets and parking lots around Intrust Bank Arena, and once inside, the bouncy kids happily cheered each of the teams that emerged for open-practice shootarounds. They were happy to cheer on all the athletes, but anticipation for the Jayhawks’ appearance brought on a high-energy buzz as the children—who filled more than half of an arena that seats more than 15,000—began chanting “KU! KU! KU!” When the KU team emerged to waves of screams, players’ faces lit up and coaches’ smiles beamed.
After singing along to the fight song piped in over the scoreboard speakers, kids carried on with assorted chants of “Jayhawks! Jayhawks!” and “Go KU! Go KU!”, and the kids and other Wichita fans and alumni who filled the arena nearly to capacity cheered heartily when center Udoka Azubuike, wearing a brace on his injured left knee but otherwise looking fairly mobile and healthy, made free throws.
When practice concluded, the Jayhawks huddled at midcourt, then waved to the crowd, encouraging more and more cheers. Big 12 Player of the Year Devontè Graham brought the half-hour affair to a roaring conclusion by draining a jump shot from midcourt.
Kansas, Big 12 champion and the Midwest region’s top seed, faces No. 16 seed Penn at 1 pm Thursday in a game to be broadcast by TBS.
“Our players know after watching tape that [Penn] is definitely not a 16,” Self said. “So they have our attention.”
Azubuike strained a knee ligament during practice before the Big 12 tournament. He has had limited practice with the team this week, and Self hopes the 7-footer can play at least “a few minutes” Thursday, with prospects for more significant playing time should KU advance.
“That 70 percent tomorrow,” Self said, “could be 85 percent by Friday and 90 percent by Saturday if we’re fortunate enough to win.”
Check out a few more photos from practice on our Flickr page. Photos and video by Steve Puppe.