LAWRENCE — Dedric Lawson needed a second to process the news. A teammate did a double take.
Lawson and his fellow Kansas basketball players discovered their NCAA Tournament path during a Selection Sunday viewing party at McCarthy Hall, with the No. 17-ranked Jayhawks (25-9) earning a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional and a 3 p.m. Thursday clash with No. 13 seed Northeastern at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City.
Incredibly, the placement breaks a streak of nine straight tournaments in which the program has been placed in either Kansas, a bordering state or nearby Iowa in the opening weekend. KU traveled to Minneapolis for the first and second rounds in 2009.
At least one Jayhawk was a little taken aback.
“Marcus (Garrett) said, ‘Where we goin’? I said, ‘Utah.’ He said, ‘Utah, Utah,’ ” Lawson said. “He was just thinkin’, like, how far it was.
“It’ll probably be a good thing just to get away from home as far as playing in a different state. Maybe guys haven’t been to Utah. I know I haven’t been. So just enjoy the city and things like that.”
Kudos to Lawson for identifying the positives in the Jayhawks’ situation, which for fans presents either a more than 15-hour drive or an expensive plane ticket. According to a Monday morning check of travel aggregator Hipmunk, the cheapest flight Wednesday from Kansas City, Mo., to Salt Lake City came in at $958 before fees.
Survive that first weekend, though, and junior forward Lawson and his teammates can deliver to the fan base a much more affordable alternative — the Midwest Region comes to a head with a second weekend at Sprint Center in Kansas City, just a 45-minute drive east on Interstate 70 from Lawrence.
Lawson said he first learned of that possibility when a commentator on CBS’ selection show posed the hypothetical.
“I was like, ‘Oh wow.’ We’ve just got to, like I said, win these games and get back home,” Lawson said. “... That definitely gives us a little more edge to play for, to give these fans something they want, a chance to come to another NCAA game and get out there and show their support. I know (we’re) dying to make it happen for them.”
KU is 3-1 at Sprint Center this season, including a 63-60 victory Dec. 8 over potential second-round opponent New Mexico State and a 78-66 defeat Saturday to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament championship game.
“I wouldn’t say it was too surprising, but that’s where they put us,” freshman point guard Devon Dotson said. “I feel like that helps us out a lot. Our fans are right here. That should be a big help.”
That said, Dotson isn’t looking past the opening-round foe Huskies (23-10), a skilled shooting squad out of the Colonial Athletic Association.
“It’s always great to see the what-ifs or the possibilities, but our focus is that first game against Northeastern,” Dotson said. “We’re going to do everything we can to prepare for them and just take it one game at a time.”
Dotson and Lawson are two of the five KU starters set to make their NCAA Tournament debuts, alongside freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji and freshman forward David McCormack. Despite the setback against the Cyclones — KU hit just 3 of 18 attempts from 3-point range in that defeat — coach Bill Self and players expressed optimism the team is trending in the right direction.
“I feel like we’re preparing pretty well,” Dotson said. “Obviously the game (Saturday) we couldn’t pull it off, but I feel like we’ve competed tremendously the past two days. Shots just didn’t fall (Saturday). But you know, I feel like we’re in a great state right now and we have a great mentality.”
As for whether the up-and-down Jayhawks are deserving of a home atmosphere against potential Sweet 16 opponent and No. 1 seed North Carolina, Lawson issued no apologies.
“Yeah, yeah, I guess so, yeah. I mean, we didn’t ask ’em to put us there," Lawson said with a laugh. "So I guess really it’s out of our control.”
KU IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Opening weekend locations since 2003-04
2019 — Salt Lake City
2018 — Wichita
2017 — Tulsa, Okla.
2016 — Des Moines, Iowa
2015 — Omaha, Neb.
2014 — St. Louis
2013 — Kansas City, Mo.
2012 — Omaha, Neb.
2011 — Tulsa, Okla.
2010 — Oklahoma City
2009 — Minneapolis
2008 — Omaha, Neb.
2007 — Chicago
2006 — Oakland, Calif.
2005 — Syracuse, N.Y.
2004 — St. Louis