There are some telling facts to make KU fans feel really good about their chances this morning. Kansas is 2-0 vs. top 10 teams this season with wins over Florida and Oklahoma State. Currently, the Aggies are ranked 10th.. The Jayhawks are also 11-0 against the Aggies all-time including a 5-0 record at Allen Fieldhouse, but yet the last three matchups between these teams have been decided by ten points or less.
“I think our guys have played pretty well against the teams that are thought to be the powers,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self. “Hopefully that will be the case again Saturday because we'll be facing one of the best teams in the country. It is going to be a battle inside. There are going to be some bodies banging. It is going to be a physical game I predict, which they would like it to be, and we definitely won't shy away from that either."
Doesn’t that quote just get you all fired up? Now let’s take a look at some important keys to Saturday’s feature game.
"This will probably be the best team defensively we've played all year. Statistically, it says that. They are leading the country in field-goal percentage defense (35.1 percent) by a pretty good margin. We're sixth at 37.6 percent, but two percentage points is a pretty big gap. They have done a pretty good job making it hard for their opponents to score. These guys are pretty sound all around,” said Self.
Kansas does have plenty of weapons at its disposal including Brandon Rush who is playing like the Conference Player of the Year lately. KU’s versatile sophomore has really turned up the intensity and looks so smooth and comfortable with his jump shot. Rush leads the team in scoring averaging over 14 points a game and also is the team’s top three-point threat (42 threes on the season). I’ve also been extremely impressed by Brandon’s effort on the boards this year, and the Jayhawks will need the extra help in that department against a physical A&M squad. Rush has had trouble against physical defenders in the past.
“Defenses can take away certain things, so he has to be prepared,” said Self referring to the defensive schemes Rush may see down the stretch. “Defenses may take certain things away and he may only get six good looks a game and create some on his own. So we tell him he has to make sure he gets prepared to shoot the good looks he gets. Since we've started league play, even though he may not have been making them all, he's been shooting the shots we want him to shoot."
If Brandon comes up big in this one, it will really be a statement game for the Jayhawks’ “go-to guy”.
If you’re talking about accuracy from long range, Sherron Collins has scored in double-figures in six of his last seven games. Collins is shooting over 50 percent from the field, and from three in Big 12 play. He’s a tough, Crane High School grad who starred on the court and on the gridiron….hmmm…sounds like the perfect game for a physical Chicago kid.
“I think Sherron has really helped everybody on the team out. Whether by coincidence or not, it has come at a pretty opportune time,” continued Self. "I still think Sherron is capable of continuing his play. That doesn't mean he will every game, but he's playing like we envisioned he would all along. It is not coming as surprise that he is playing so well."
When the lights are brightest, Julian Wright tends to bring his best. JuJu leads the team in rebounds and no doubt will be energized for this one. The question for Julian is always will that energy translate to smart plays or too much flash? Wright will probably have a defender a bit slower than him guarding him and he could take advantage especially by running the floor.
“I think the way the game goes will dictate a lot of things for Julian. He's not always going to get 20 or 17 points, but he can always impact a possession. He certainly can do a better job of being more consistent and impacting possessions, but I think people have a tendency to look at him as a points and rebounds guy when he is much more than that. He needs to be more consistent and aggressive for us to be the team we are capable of being,” said Self.
Speaking of running, no one ignites the fast break quite like Mario Chalmers who’s been a little quiet as of late. Chalmers leads the team in steals and gets his hands on more passes than any player I’ve seen in a long, long time. He hasn’t scored much of late but still impacts the game on the defensive side of the ball. If KU can get it going in transition and not have to grind it out vs. a tough Aggie defense, look out in this one. Chalmers is due for a big game.
“Russell Robinson’s and Brandon's play has gone up and when Mario is on, he's been as good as anyone we have. I think our four perimeter guys have played pretty well,” according to Self.
On the inside, how much production will we see from KU’s frontline? If the pressure falls squarely on the perimeter, it could be a long night on the offensive end for KU. Balance might be more important in this game than any other this season. As Self noted, the Jayhawks definitely have the faster frontcourt but A&M probably has the more physical one. Which will win out in this contest? I think this is another game where Darnell Jackson is important just for his physical presence alone. Jackson is quietly one of KU’s most effective rebounders and he could be a key on Saturday. The interesting question might be where Darrell Arthur fits into the plan for this game? Shady averages around 11 points and leads the team in blocks. He’s another player that can take advantage of his speed and athleticism in the open court.
Overall, trying to do it off the bounce against A&M could be a mistake. The Jayhawks need to be unselfish and make the extra pass against the vaunted Aggie “D”.
Kansas On Defense:
Bill Self must feel like he’s looking in the mirror when he watches tape of A&M.
“He runs a high-low more than what we do,” said Self, referring to his former assistant, Billy Gillespie. “They have two big post guys that can both shoot and pass it, so it's a great system. The biggest thing, and he'd probably be the first to tell you, is that it is about stealing possessions, getting loose balls and not letting the other team get easy possessions. They take great pride in making their opponents make plays rather than giving them points."
The Aggies shoot over 50 percent from the field (1st in Big 12) and KU hasn’t let an opponent shoot 50 percent or more yet this season. In fact the last time a Jayhawk opponent shot over 50 percent from the floor was 28 games-ago.
As we told you two days ago, the defensive scheme starts with stopping Acie Law. Several players could draw this assignment, but Russell Robinson likely gets the first shot. Law averages over 16 a game and is the team’s leading scorer.
"He is very tough and very fast. I think he has the game to play in the NBA,” said Self, referring to A&M’s top offensive threat. “He can score with either hand. He is a great off-balance shooter, probably one of the best we'll play all year. He has been a solid performer for them."
Junior center Joseph Jones is a force inside. He averages over 13 points and nearly seven rebounds per game. Will we see the big-to-big double from KU or will they try to guard Jones straight up? This is likely Sasha Kaun’s assignment, but can he stay out of foul trouble? Self may start by using a big-to-big double team just so that his guys won’t get into early foul trouble. Foul trouble was definitely a concern heading into this contest.
“Well, our big guys aren't that big. Sasha Kaun and Darrell Arthur are big, but Julian Wright is more a three playing at the four position and Darrell is like a three and a half. They are going to play two legitimate big guys just about the entire game, save for a few exceptions,” stated Self.
Needless to say, senior forward Anatanas Kavaliauskas favors the high percentage shot and shoots over 60 percent from the field. Kavaliauskas is a lot bigger than Wright so Julian will definitely have to use his wiry frame to the fullest.
This is an unselfish A&M team that leads the league in assists and really doesn’t have just one way to stop them. Kansas will have its hands full, but A&M hasn’t played many teams as talented as KU. Rebounding could also be critical in this one. The numbers play out in favor of KU in that department but there will be a lot of banging on the interior.
The Jayhawks get the nod in this one at home in yet another contest decided by 10 points or less.