SALT LAKE CITY — Win or lose Saturday, one thing won’t change for Dedric Lawson.
The Kansas basketball junior forward will still be a fan of his opponent’s most famous — and most outspoken — alumnus.
“I like Charles Barkley like a fan, like what he do on TNT and things like that,” Lawson said Friday afternoon ahead of the No. 4-seeded Jayhawks’ 8:40 p.m. Saturday NCAA Tournament clash with No. 5-seeded Auburn at Vivint Smart Home Arena. “Him and Shaq (O’Neal) got that little bromance, what they call it. I like Charles Barkley. ...
“I’ll listen to him, I’ll listen to him. No matter if he goin’ against us or not, I’ll listen to him.”
Whether “Sir Charles” returns the love may hinge on Saturday’s outcome.
KU (26-9) advanced to the Round of 32 with an 87-53 victory over Northeastern on Thursday, and Auburn (27-9) advanced with an earlier 78-77 win over New Mexico State, the SEC Tournament champion’s ninth straight victory. While the Jayhawks breezed, the Tigers struggled mightily, nearly blowing what was an eight-point lead with less than two minutes left.
Lawson and the Jayhawks watched the final minute of that opening-round clash from an arena tunnel, with the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder acknowledging he felt like a fan — “That’s something (when) you watching basketball and you get carried away, like, ‘Man that’s a good game,’ ” Lawson said.
Lawson went on to play just 27 minutes in the victory over the Huskies, scoring 25 points and bringing in 11 rebounds in the blowout. While he’ll be fresh and ready to go Saturday, Lawson believes the way Auburn dodged disaster will make them a more dangerous foe.
“I think so. I really think so,” Lawson said. “Once you get out of a situation like that, your focus is more in tune next time you get out there and play.”
The Tigers certainly have KU coach Bill Self’s full attention, particularly with respect to two facets that could give the Jayhawks fits.
“If you look at it from what do we do well and what do they do well, and what are our weaknesses compared to their strengths, I mean, there’s things,” Self said. “We haven’t been great at taking care of the basketball; they turn people over more than anybody. We haven’t been great at defending the arc; and they shoot more 3s than anybody.
“So there’s things we have to be really good at (Saturday) in order to give us the best chance, but I know our guys are jacked and they’re excited about the challenge.”
Self’s observations are accurate.
Auburn ranks sixth nationally in turnovers forced per game (17.68), the highest mark of any major conference program and the best of any team remaining in the NCAA Tournament. KU, meanwhile, ranks 221st nationally in turnovers committed (13.4).
Self said ball protection will be “obviously a major emphasis” in the second-round tilt, highlighting the multitude of ways the Tigers have turned opponents over this season.
“They’ll do a lot of different things, but we need to be very strong with the ball,” Self said. “We will turn it over. We’ve proven that over time, that we’re good at that. If that’s the case, just not (let) it be live-ball turnovers. They can take it out of bounds.”
KU committed 12 turnovers against Northeastern, but in the other area Self identified, the team made major strides — the Jayhawks limited the sharp-shooting Huskies to a 6-for-28 shooting clip from 3-point range, an encouraging step forward for a group that entered Friday ranked 141st in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (33.6).
Ranked second nationally with 1,083 long-range attempts this season, Auburn stands at 37th with a 37.6-percent conversion rate.
One more noteworthy nugget: The Tigers start four upperclassmen, including seniors Bryce Brown and Malik Dunbar, while the Jayhawks start four freshmen around Lawson. One might think that would create a sense-of-urgency advantage in favor of Auburn, but Self isn't so sure.
“You could also say, ‘Well, Dedric Lawson, this is your last NCAA Tournament,’ or, ‘Quentin Grimes, this could be your last NCAA Tournament.' I mean, there’s a lot of guys this could be their last tournament depending on what their future holds,” Self said. “And we don’t have any seniors, so you could make a case for, ‘Well, you’ve got everybody back,’ but we’re not going to have everybody back, either.
“I really think that they’ll be highly motivated, which they should be, and we’ll be highly motivated, and it may be for different reasons, but I bet in reality they’re very comparable. It will be a very competitive game (Saturday) on both sides.”
Garrett fighting bug
A fever kept Marcus Garrett from attending KU’s media availability Friday, but Self is hopeful a “good day’s rest and a lot of fluids” will help the sophomore guard play Saturday.
“He’s sick,” Self said. “Started feeling bad yesterday before the game, and last night didn’t have a good night, but he’ll be ready to go (Saturday). ... We’re hoping it’s not the flu, but he’s being treated like it is.”
NO. 5 AUBURN VS. NO. 4 KANSAS
Tipoff: Approximately 8:40 p.m. CST Saturday, Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City
Line: Auburn by 2
TV/Radio: CBS/KWIC-FM (99.3)
TJC watch party: Lazy Toad
Next: Winner advances to the Sweet 16 next week at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
NO. 5 AUBURN (27-9)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F Chuma Okeke ... 6-8 ... So. ... 11.8 ... 6.8
F Anfernee McLemore ... 6-7 ... Jr. ... 6.6 ... 3.8
G Malik Dunbar ... 6-6 ... Sr. ... 6.8 ... 3.3
G Bryce Brown ... 6-3 ... Sr. ... 15.7 ... 2.0
G Jared Harper ... 5-11 ... Jr. ... 15.3 ... 5.7*
NO. 4 KANSAS (26-9)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F David McCormack ... 6-10 ... Fr. ... 3.6 ... 3.0
F Dedric Lawson ... 6-9 ... Jr. ... 19.3 ... 10.3
G Ochai Agbaji ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... 8.9 ... 4.8
G Quentin Grimes ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... 8.2 ... 2.5
G Devon Dotson ... 6-2 ... Fr. ... 12.3 ... 3.8*
* — Assists