Kansas has been hit with an injury bug this year, losing leading scorer Sherron Collins to a foot injury, and junior Brandon Rush is still rehabbing from a torn ACL, despite playing in the Jayhawks last two games. Rush is still working his way back from that injury, playing just 14 minutes in those two games. However, in those 14 minutes, he's still been an effective player for the Jayhawks, averaging 6.5 points per game.
Kansas hasn't had a competitive game this year, winning by an average of 31.3 points per game. Despite the popular feeling that Kansas should handle Arizona with a bit of ease, the Jayhawks aren't buying into that. They feel as though Arizona will be their biggest challenge yet, and should prove to be a worthy opponent.
Despite their two victories this week over UMKC and Adams State, the Wildcats still showed signs of a team that's going through a major growth stage. The Wildcats are still without head coach Lute Olson, who is remains gone on his leave of absence. In his absence, the Cats have been led by interim head coach Kevin O'Neill, someone who is also going through a bit of a growth stage. O'Neill was brought in to be a defensive specialist, but has been thrown into a more prominent role with Arizona as their head coach. According to many, the players have responded well, and are continuing to respond well to O'Neill and his coaching tactics.
Arizona will need guys like Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger, and Jordan Hill to have impact games against Kansas today if they have any hope of winning. While many think it'll take a 2003 Salim Stoudamire performance for the Wildcats to beat Kansas tonight, it should be noted that the Cats may not need that. While it would help, Arizona can win going a different route. The Cats need to start with defending better. Despite being more defensive minded, the Wildcats are still allowing their opponents to shoot 45% from the field, and 39% from the three point line. That needs to change, especially against a very talented offensive team like Kansas.
Secondly, the Wildcats can't afford to start slow, or go into those extended lulls of bad basketball. Kansas is simply too good of a basketball team to have that happen without getting blown out of the building. This team is young, and inexperienced; that makes it easier to understand why they sometimes allow teams like Adams State or Northern Arizona back into a game. However, that can't be the case against Kansas. While Arizona more than likely won't hold a significant lead over Kansas like they have over their other opponents this year, they will still need to avoid the extended offensive and defensive mistakes that they've shown in their first four games.
Interim head coach Kevin O'Neill has stated that he may go with a bigger lineup to start against Kansas, despite having success with the four guard lineup through the early parts of this season. Guys like Jamelle Horne, Bret Brielmaier, and Kirk Walters are possibilities, but those guys still don't offer the physical attributes to match up with the likes of Arthur or Jackson. The Wildcats will need to utilize their big men efficiently tonight; that means using every body they have, playing sound, physical defense, and using their fouls efficiently and effectively. If there's one weakness to this Kansas team, it's their inability to shoot the ball well from the free throw line.
While this game poses many problems for Arizona, it shouldn't be ignored that Arizona can win this basketball game. From what we've seen in the world of college basketball, lesser talented teams, or lower ranked teams, are capable of beating the higher ranked, more talented teams. Lesser talented isn't something you typically associate with an Arizona basketball team, but that's what they're facing in tonight's game versus Kansas.
Whether Arizona wins tonight or not remains to be seen, but the theme of this season has been to continually get better with each game. That still should be the goal in tonight's game versus Kansas, but it sure wouldn't hurt to come out of Lawrence with a win.