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Penn men's basketball sophomore forward AJ Brodeur will have his hands full trying to contain Kansas center Udoka Azubuike. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

To the dismay of some Penn fans and to the excitement of the men’s basketball team, the Quakers received the news on Sunday evening that they would be taking on Kansas in the NCAA Tournament opener in Wichita, Kansas. 

A lot of hype surrounds this monumental showdown versus the top-seeded Jayhawks on Thursday — so let’s get to know them and see how Penn stacks up.

Kansas knows what it’s like to win in the tournament

Kansas (27-7, 13-5 Big 12) finished its season atop the Big 12 standings for the 14th consecutive year, en route to a conference tournament championship. Coach Bill Self, now in his 15th season at the helm for the Jayhawks, has built a program that is expected to win the Big 12 title and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament every year.

Self and the Jayhawks have been here before. In fact, they’ve been here a lot. Kansas has now appeared in 29 straight NCAA Tournaments, which is a men’s college basketball record. 

On this year’s squad, three starters — senior guards Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and junior guard Lagerald Vick — have significant experience playing in the Big dance.

Penn, on the other hand, is looking for its first NCAA Tournament win in 24 years. With that being said, coach Steve Donahue is no stranger to Ivy League upsets on the biggest stage. In the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Cornell, led by Donahue, took down fifth-seeded Temple and fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the opening weekend.

Matchups will be a problem for the Quakers

This year’s Kansas team, as per usual, is loaded at every position on the floor, with all five of its typical starters averaging at least 12 points per game.

Self believes that Graham (17.6 ppg, 7.2 apg), who won the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year award, will be the key to the Jayhawks success this March.

“When he plays well, and he doesn’t have to play great, but when he plays well, he just gives us a confidence that brings out the best in others,” Self said in an interview during Sunday’s March Madness Selection Show.

Graham is not only difficult to control on the offensive end, but he is also a terrific perimeter defender, capable of locking down one player for an entire game. His playmaking ability on both sides of the ball is what makes him a likely candidate for the All-American Team. 

While Graham presents a unique challenge to Penn, perhaps the toughest assignment for the Quakers will be dealing with the 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore center Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike, who injured his left knee last week, is now expected to play on Thursday, despite missing the Big 12 Tournament.

With his size and strength alone, Azubuike (13.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg) will be a matchup nightmare for Penn. The Quakers’ frontcourt of sophomore AJ Brodeur and junior Max Rothschild has to hold its own in the rebounding and low post battle if the Red and Blue have any chance of notching a historic victory.

This is not a typical 16 vs. 1 matchup

Kansas may be the better basketball team, but the Quakers are one of the best No. 16 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Penn is currently ranked higher on KenPom than the other No. 16 seeds, three No. 15 seeds, and one No. 14 seed in this year’s field. Of course, no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a one seed, but there’s a first time for everything.

Kansas has relied heavily on the three-ball this season, ranking 10th out of 351 Division I teams in three-pointers made. This is actually good news for Penn, which holds its opponents to 29.2 percent from beyond the arc, ranking second in the nation. Thus, the success of the Jayhawks from long range will likely be a key indicator of the final result of the game.

Additionally, Kansas has had its struggles throughout the season, losing to five teams ranked outside of the RPI top 50. Earlier this year, Self called this team “the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here.” Though Self is known for making these types of inflammatory statements about his teams, this comment shows that the Jayhawks are not necessarily too mighty for the Quakers.