Keys to victory

Nobody outside of the Kansas locker room may be giving the Jayhawks much of a chance in tonight's national championship tilt with Kentucky, but a win is within their reach regardless. With the hours until tipoff slowly dwindling, takes a look at a few possible keys to the game for Kansas.

So, there's a basketball game to be played tonight.

That's right. One wouldn't know it by the tenor of the national - and even local - media, who seem to believe the outcome has already been decided, but the NCAA will probably go ahead and let Kansas and Kentucky play tonight anyway. Just for grins if nothing else.

Toning down the snark a tad, there's no denying the overwhelming majority of the country, not just the media, believes tonight will likely end in an easy victory for the Wildcats. And why not? Throughout the entire season they have undoubtedly been the country's most dominant team, and have already beaten Kansas once - a 10-point victory Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden.

Some analysts and fans have spent the past 48 hours poring over the box score from that game in an attempt to gain insight into tonight's National Championship affair. They shouldn't. It's a wasted effort, because the teams which will take the floor tonight are virtually unrecognizable from those who did so in New York four and a half months ago.

As one might expect of a roster loaded with freshmen, Kentucky has improved markedly as those youth have gained experience with each and every game.

But Kansas is night and day as well. Perhaps the one valuable stat line from that game's box score is the one labeled "minutes." In that contest, Conner Teahan and Justin Wesley each played more than 20 minutes. Naadir Tharpe played nine, and Kevin Young just two.

Fast forward to the NCAA Tournament - just as an example - and things are dramatically different. During the past five games, Teahan has remained the team's top reserve, averaging 21.6 points per game, while Young has flourished of late and solidified a spot as Kansas' primary rotational post player, averaging 16.2 minutes per game. Tharpe and Wesley, meanwhile, have largely been relegated to emergency spot duty, which isn't to say they haven't proven valuable in their own right.

The point is, trying to predict results based on a game which took place an eternity ago in basketball time is a lesson of futility. Instead, it is far more productive to analyze recent history - again, sticking with each team's performance throughout the NCAA tournament.

So, given how they've played of late, what do the Kansas Jayhawks need to do in order to win tonight, and bring home the second championship of the Bill Self Era?

Here are a few keys:

1. First half defense

Kentucky's talent level is such that they are capable of simply overwhelming opponents early if the opposition allows them to get off to a hot start. Ground breaking stuff, right? Well, part of what makes it relevant - and potentially troublesome - for the Jayhawks is that Self's squad hasn't been particularly staunch throughout the first 20 minutes thus far in the Big Dance.

Through the last five games, teams are averaging 46.1-percent from the field against the Jayhawks during the first half, punctuated by particularly stellar efforts from Purdue (54.5), North Carolina (63.6) and Ohio State (46.2).

It hasn't helped that the Jayhawks have been cold themselves at times to open games - 29.4-percent versus Purdue, 34.2-percent versus North Carolina State and 36.7-percent versus Ohio State standing as evidence - but this Kansas team has staked its reputation on defense, perhaps more so than any other squad in the Bill Self Era.

They cannot let the Wildcats jump on them early, which isn't just about hitting shots themselves. They went shot for shot versus North Carolina in the first half and that one ended in victory, yes, but Kentucky is a far better defensive team than the Tar Heels. The Jayhawks can be cold as ice until they get into the flow of the game, but only if the defensive intensity is ratcheted to 11 from the get-go.

2. Rebounding

The Jayhawks are coming off an incredibly strong rebounding effort in Saturday night's semi-final victory over Ohio State, in which they out-rebounded the Buckeyes by a +12 margin. In fact, Kansas has rebounded the ball well all tournament long, out-rebounding the exceedingly talented frontcourt of North Carolina - the nation's top rebounding team during the season - by six, and enjoying a +37 advantage during the Dance.

This is a part of the game where Kansas may be able to exploit an advantage over the Wildcats. Kentucky was out-rebounded 40-33 in their semi-final game versus Louisville, and the Cardinals were particularly impressive on the offensive glass, out-rebounding the Wildcats 19-6. Baylor out-rebounded them in the Elite 8 as well.

The Kansas guards, particularly Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson, did an excellent job on the glass versus the Buckeyes. If Releford can keep Michael Kidd-Gilchrist off the glass and continue his strong play defensively, it would go a long way toward helping the Jayhawks control the glass again.

Control the glass, and in many ways one controls the game.

3. Jeff Withey

To the outsider, this may seem a little Wouldn't Tyshawn Taylor or Thomas Robinson be more of a key, as they are Kansas' two best players?

It's not that it's not important for those two to play well - particularly Taylor, as the Jayhawks should enjoy a clear advantage at point guard in his match-up with Marquis Teague - it's just that Withey has more potential to change the game than either of those two.

Skeptical? Just look at the Ohio State game. What Withey did to Jared Sullinger during the second-half of that contest not only completely erased any effect the All-American had on the game, it totally changed Ohio State's mentality. Suddenly they were eyeing the lane with trepidation rather than confidence, and settling for lower-percentage outside jumpers.

Anthony Davis is a horse of a different color, no doubt about it. He's not as skilled as Sullinger offensively, but he's also far less likely to be bothered by Withey's length. It's likely the Jayhawks will show some of the triangle-and-two, maybe even a bit of box-and-one, that has served them so well as a change of pace defense this season.

Though one rarely hears a whisper about it in the media, Withey is actually a better shot blocker than Davis, swatting 15.3-percent of available two-point shot attempts during the season, as compared to Davis' 13.7.

Withey has to stay on the floor and has to assert himself early. Don't pick up cheap fouls when Kidd-Gilchrist bulls his way into the lane, or Terrence Jones manages to pull down an offensive board. The big 7-footer averages approximately 25 minutes per game, but he may need to play more than that tonight - and be operating at peak efficiency - to give the Jayhawks their best chance.

4. Take smart shots

There really isn't an easy way to quantify this one. The recent tendency to go cold during the first half of play has already been discussed, but not all of those misses have been bad shots. Taylor, for example, has taken nothing but wide-open three point shots, and yet he can't seem to buy a bucket from the outside right now.

It would go a long way for Kansas if they're able to hit some jumpers. That sort of goes without saying. But it's equally important to avoid the few brain-dead plays each game that still seem to plague this team. Whether it's Conner Teahan attempting to drive and create, or Robinson jacking up a deep jumper early in the shot clock.

The good news is that this team doesn't seem to have a panic mode. Neither the situation nor the opponent will intimidate them. They just have to get out of their own way or, as Self puts it, remember who they are. Run the offense through the post, move the ball quickly around the perimeter, and get to the line.

Beating Kentucky is a tall order for any team, as evidenced by their sparkling 37-2 record. But Kansas has the ability within them to do so - they're just going to have to bring their A-game to have a realistic chance of getting it done. And not for the final 20 minutes, or final five minutes. But for all 40.

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