Kansas Hoops Preview

Fresh off of the biggest win of the Rob Evans era, Arizona State heads into the second round of NCAA Tournament play against second seed Kansas. The Jayhawks finished 14-2 in the Big 12 regular season, which they won. DevilsDigest.com breaks down the game, which will broadcast locally on Saturday in Oklahoma City at 7 p.m., 6 p.m. Arizona time.

Just three short weeks ago, following a road sweep at the hands of Stanford and Cal, Arizona State (20-11; 11-7) needed a home sweep of the Oregon schools in the final week of the regular season to avoid being placed squarely on the proverbial Tournament bubble.

Thus, it hardly seems real that less than a month later the Sun Devils will be playing the perennially ranked Kansas Jayhawks (26-7; 14-2) in Round of 32. Playing tenacious, inspired and intelligent basketball, the Sun Devils handed Memphis only its second loss in nearly two months.

"Led by a brilliant near triple-double performance by emotional senior leader Curtis Millage, and freshman sensation Ike Diogu the Devils opened up a double digit second half lead after being down at the half by a point." ASU scored 50 points overall in the second half, fueled in part by a switch to the open post offense that the Sun Devils have run so effectively at times this season.

While the Devils playing their best basketball of the year, Kansas struggled in the game that followed against #15 seed Utah State in a contest that was close up until the final buzzer. Utah State exposed weaknesses in the Kansas half court defense and prevented the Jayhawks from opening up the game via the fast break.

The Jayhawks are talented but thin group, led by seniors, Kirk Hinrich, a 6'3 guard, and Nick Collison, a 6'9 power forward. Both of these players grew up in Iowa and played for their fathers at the high schools level before matriculating to Kansas. These are players who can be summed up in one word: Winners.

Hinrich and Collison are certainly not imposing physical specimens that will scare you during warm ups, but once a game is underway, it's easy to see why these players are worthy of All-American honors. Hinrich is ultra speedy in the open floor, one of the best players in the country at leading the fast break with the ball in his hands. He's also the best shooter by far on the squad, capable of spotting up or burying the deep ball in transition. He often plays the off-guard for Kansas, but when combined with 6'1 sophomore Aaron Miles, it's like having two point guards on the floor simultaneously.

Collison is a great presence offensively on the low block. He has a variety of efficient post moves and can face up and knock down the short jumper with ease. He's even capable of hitting the open shot from the perimeter, though it's not something to look for with regularity. He's also the leading rebounder on the team with over nine per game. Collison and Hinrich combine for almost 36 points, or roughly 40% of the total Jayhawk offensive output.

While Collison and Hinrich are the team's star players, the guy who has been the most impressive on the roster of late has been 6'4 swingman Keith Langford. A terrific athlete, Langford is the best player on the team at breaking down an opposing defender and either pulling up for the mid-range jumper or getting all the way to the hoop. He's also a legitimate physical presence despite his relative lack of height at the small forward position. Langford averages about 5 rebounds per game and is a very able defender, even against taller wings.

The aforementioned Miles is the point guard trusted with the job of running the half court Kansas attack, and it's a job he does very well, averaging about 6 5 assists. Though he isn't a serious threat in terms of shooting the basketball from the perimeter, Miles is very adept at scoring and gets most of his (8.8 ppg.) scoring average after breaking down the defense off the dribble.

Starting alongside Collison in the interior is beefy 6'9 junior Jeff Graves. A big strong player weighing around 275 pounds, Graves has taken over the role of starter from an injured Wayne Simien, who was lost for the season due to a dislocated shoulder. Graves is somewhat of a drop off from Simien, particular on the offensive end where the loss out production has been noteworthy. Simien had averaged 14.8 points in 16 games and Graves is only putting up 5.5 points a game. Perhaps even more troubling for Kansas is the fact that Graves has been foul prone, a problem exacerbated by the Jayhawks relative lack of frontcourt depth and of particular concern against a team with a post presence like Ike Diogu of ASU.

Off the bench, Kansas only plays a couple of players with any regularity. Michael Lee, a 6'3 sophomore gets the bulk of the reserve minutes in the backcourt. Like Hinrich, Miles is capable of playing either guard position but plays primarily at the off-guard. He's very strong physically and versatile in his ability to rebound and defend. On the wing, 6'6 junior Bryant Nash generally is brought in by coach Roy Williams as a substitute for Langford. Nash is a tremendous athlete, but somewhat raw skill-wise and is an important player in that he's the only true small forward in the rotation. Match-up problems against Redhage or Smith might necessitate more playing time for Nash. Moulaye Niang, a 6'10 freshman is the only legitimate backup in the post, and he doesn't even play in some games.

This lack of depth in the frontcourt could prove to be a key element in the game against ASU because of the fact that Kansas, like Memphis, primarily plays an extended man-to-man defense. Such a defense opens up opportunities for Diogu in the post as well as dribble penetration by players like Curtis Millage, Shaun Redhage and Tommy Smith. Penetration by these players into the teeth of a foul-prone Kansas frontcourt is potential trouble for a shallow Jayhawk frontcourt.

As demonstrated earlier in the season against teams like Purdue and Cal, and proven against Memphis on Thursday, ASU is most dangerous in its motion offense against a man-to-man defense, whether it be the 4 in, 1 out or Open Post variety. Teams that try to pressure the Sun Devils, either in a full court trap or half court man, usually are unsuccessful. Against Memphis, ASU had 18 assists as a team against only nine turnovers despite continuous pressure in the backcourt from the Tigers quick and athletic guards. Kyle Dodd led the Pac-10 with a 6:1 assist-turnover ratio, more than doubling his closest competitor.

The defense that has worked best against the Sun Devils, and one employed sporadically by Williams' Jayhawks is the 1-3-1 defense that puts a high emphasis and bodying Diogu both in front and underneath. Attacking this defense requires diagonal passing along the perimeter, stretching the defense in the corners, and along the baseline and quick ball reversals. ASU has had success at times against the 1-3-1, as it is a defense run by the likes of Arizona, Oregon State, Washington, and USC, but it has also struggled at times, particularly against teams that are very long and athletic on the perimeter. Kansas is athletic, but not particularly long.

Offensively, Kansas likes to get out and run, much like Oregon, a team that beat it early in the season, but the Jayhawks also have a serious threat in Collison in the post, something the Ducks simply do not have. If anything Kansas is a little more like Arizona, without the length on the wing and without as many quality shooters capable of burning a team on the leak out in transition. Arizona is also quite a bit deeper and even more athletic than Kansas and it showed in the Wildcats big second half against the Jayhawks in Lawrence earlier this year.

For Arizona State, don't be surprised if Rob Evans goes with the 3-2 matchup zone that has been so effective late in the season and on Thursday against Memphis. Not only does it allow the Sun Devils to conserve fouls in the frontcourt, but Kansas has really struggled at shooting the ball out of its half court offense of late. The Jayhawks much prefer to make games an up and down battle, and as such are among the nation's leaders in points per game. But when team's force Kansas to play a slow down, half court game, it negates the quickness and versatility of the team.

This is a contest that, on paper, looks better than one might otherwise imagine for the Sun Devils. Arizona State has had a lot of practice against teams that do things in a similar fashion to Kansas, thought perhaps not as well (other than UA). The Sun Devils have spent much of the last few weeks working hard on transition defense because of Oregon and Arizona, but it looks as thought that will wind up coming in very handy against a Kansas team that is shallow in the frontcourt and only moderately successful of late on the perimeter. If ASU can play as well as it did against Memphis, a win would not be particularly surprising. It would be rather Sweet however, in more ways that one.

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