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Making the Case for Kansas

April 2, 2012

Fortes fortuna adiuvat. For the Kansas Jayhawks, fortune may indeed favor the bold. Entering tonight’s NCAA® Championship Game, Kentucky is the consensus favorite; Las Vegas and other offshore sports books have Kentucky favored by 6.5 points. Yet this isn’t Villanova-Georgetown or even Duke-Butler. This game matches the two winningest programs in college basketball. Like both Final Four games, this game is a rematch of an earlier contest this season, with Kentucky winning 75-65 November 15 at Madison Square Garden in the State Farm Champions Classic, a contest that Kentucky controlled for the entire second half. For this game to have a different outcome (and not follow suit like both Final Four games in which the winner of the first game won the rematch), here are the things that Kansas must be proactive about to make the most favorable argument for victory, many of which most of Kentucky;s opponents were unwilling or unable to do.

Thomas Robinson – He is simply the “X Factor” for Kansas tonight.  He is the one player for which Kentucky does not have a ready match-up.  I’m sure they’ll start Terrence Jones on Robinson, and won’t be afraid to switch out Anthony Davis on him early, but Robinson must be aggressive with the ball in the post, draw fouls on Kentucky’s frontline, and use his superior physical gifts to battle for every rebound. A highly productive game bodes well for Kansas – Robinson was held below his 17.9 scoring average in four of Kansas’ six losses – and he has to find a way to be a more productive factor than he was in November’s loss (27 minutes, 11 points, 12 rebounds, 5 fouls) for Kansas to win.

Jeff Withey Is Anthony Davis’ Shot-Blocking Equal – While Anthony Davis was the nations’ leading shot-blocker overall (180) and per game (4.62), Jeff Withey was No. 2 overall (136), No. 4 per game (3.58) and currently leads the NCAA® Championship in blocked shots (27 to Davis’ 23).  Withey’s improved play has been key for Kansas in the latter half of this season, taking pressure off of the two-headed Jayhawk Monster (Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor), and suffocating the lane for opposing post players. For Kansas to stay within striking distance, Withey will have to pose the same issue for Kentucky inside as Davis poses for all of Kentucky’s opponents.

Perimeter Shooting, Wherefore Art Thou? – According to official NCAA® Statistics (a treasure trove of which can be found here), Kansas for the season shot 47.5% from the field, and 34.3% from three.  In the NCAA® Championship however, Kansas has only shot 41.4% from the field, and a paltry 24.1% from 3 (19-79). In particular, Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks’ second leading 3-point shooter in makes (57 on the season) and percentage (37.7%), is 0-20 (!), bagels with no cream cheese for five games. One argument says this is a trend, while another says Kansas (and Taylor) is overdue to shoot well.  How this argument is settled tonight will go a long way towards determining the winner, but it’s clear that Kansas will have to make more than their tournament average of 3.8 threes tonight, and look early to see if Taylor can get off the schneid.

Get Everything On The List – Ever go to the store with a shopping list and either forget to get one or two items, or find yourself unable to afford everything on the list?  If the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is the store, then Kansas must get everything on their list tonight. What that actually means, based on Kentucky’s two losses and other various escapes this season, is that in addition to the above, Kansas must get the following done (in handy list form):

  • Be physical and clog the driving lanes defensively for Kentucky’s Dribble-drive offense (As Tennessee did in a 3-point loss in January)
  • Force turnovers from Kentucky’s primary ball-handlers (As Indiana did in December)
  • Dominate the offensive boards (Like Louisville did Saturday)
  • Get Kentucky in foul trouble  (Like Kansas did in November)
  • Limit transition opportunities and turn Kentucky into a jump shooting team (Like Vanderbilt did in the SEC Title game)

Kansas Closes Games Well – Despite a well-earned reputation for choking away games to lesser teams in the NCAA® Championship – Mention Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU in front of a Kansas fan and watch their eyes well up – this year’s Kansas squad has bucked that trend and found ways to win games late, with a game-by-game analysis showing they’ve done so by ratcheting up their defensive intensity. Witness:

  • Round of 64: Held Detroit to 7 points over the final 9:36.
  • Round of 32: Came back from 11 down against Purdue and outscored them 11-4 over the last 3:41.
  • Sweet 16: Shrugged off an early 10-point deficit to North Carolina State and despite almost blowing a late 9-point lead, held the Wolfpack to 3-12 from the field over the last 6:18.
  • Elite Eight: Closed North Carolina out, holding them without a field goal over the last 5:46, and blowing a one-point game wide open by outscoring the Tar Heels12-0 over the last 3:58.
  • Final Four: Spotted Ohio State an early 13-point lead, then crawled back into the game to tie at 38 early in the second half, followed by outscoring the Buckeyes 15-7 over the final 5:21, holding them to 2-10 from the field.

Overall, according to ESPN Kansas has held their five NCAA opponents to 19.5% shooting in the final five minutes, and will most likely have to Rinse-Lather-Repeat to cut down the nets.

Defense Wins Championships – It’s a cliché, but the fact is both teams are in New Orleans on a Monday night in April because of their ability to defend.  Kentucky leads the nation in field goal percentage defense (37.4%) and Kansas is No. 2 (37.9%). That’s no coincidence.  As detailed above Kansas has been especially stingy in last few minutes of games this tournament, and is No. 4 overall in field goal percentage defense in the NCAA® Championship at 35.3%. I don’t think Kansas would be well-served to let Kentucky get an early double-digit lead as Purdue, North Carolina State and Ohio State did, but if Kansas can control the tempo, turn the game into a grinding half-court contest and position themselves within striking distance in the last five minutes, you have to like Kansas’ chances.

Bill Self Beat John Calipari For All the Marbles Before – Despite what the NCAA® official record books would have you believe, I know that in 2008, Bill Self’s Kansas actually played John Calipari’s Memphis for the NCAA® Championship, that game went into overtime and Kansas prevailed.  It happened. It could happen again. Memphis was also favored that night, and had the presumptive subsequent No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick in Derrick Rose (much like Kentucky and Anthony Davis). Like they have in the last five games, Kansas in 2008 found a way to be clutch when it mattered, and if they keep the game close enough, could find a way to repeat history.

Do all of this, and it’s still no guarantee Kansas wins. Due to their youth Kentucky at times displays some of the earmarks of bad teams, whether it is turnovers, defensive lapses, missed free throws or bad shot selection.  Yet Kentucky has proven they have enough talent to overcome all of that, having beat every team they’ve played on their schedule at least once (Kentucky beat Vanderbilt twice in February before losing the SEC Title game, and beat Indiana in the Sweet 16 after losing to them in December), including this very Kansas squad in November. Kansas won’t be intimidated, but will they be bold?

I still think Kentucky wins, but that’s my closing argument for Kansas, and the jury starts deliberations at 6:23 PST tonight.


From → Basketball, Sports

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