Kansas Ready To Take Next Step

Kansas is one win away from the Sweet Sixteen, but Phog.net points out the challenges an eighth seeded UNLV team presents for KU.

No offense to Portland State but for Kansas, the NCAA tournament begins today. Until history is made a one seed toppling a 16 seed is a foregone conclusion in NCAA play. KU is set to take on an upstart UNLV team that many think just might’ve been the best team in the Mountain West.

The eighth seeded Rebels will not sneak up on this KU team especially after Kansas coaches had a front row seat to UNLV’s first round destruction of Kent State. The Jayhawks are also well aware that just a year ago Lon Kruger’s Rebels took down second-seeded Wisconsin on their way to a Sweet 16. All five starters from that squad are gone, but this year’s team presents a whole new set of challenges for KU – challenges that Kansas head coach Bill Self admitted are “unique”.

Las Vegas is known for glitz and glamour but this UNLV team is all about blue-collar work. They’re not the most talented bunch, they certainly have weaknesses but this Rebel team never stops working. Lon Kruger’s squad plays a suffocating man-to-man defense that forces a ton of steals. Thursday Kruger’s vaunted “D” held Kent State to just 10 points in the first half – it tied an NCAA record for lowest points in a half.

“That just shows how well UNLV pressures. And they pressure a lot. But, you know, they had Kent State a little bit out of their comfort zone. It's something we can't allow them to do to us,” according to Sherron Collins. “We have to absorb the pressure and run the offense and get around the pressure. I think we have guards that are good enough to handle that pressure.”

“I don't know that we played against anybody that defends or are in the right spots or positions better than what I saw UNLV do against Kent State the other day,” Self continued. “They totally took Kent State out of the offensive sets before they even crossed half-court with their positioning playing so high on the floor, and their pieces are interchangeable defensively, because they can switch ball screens.”

“I think our guys recognized early that our identity needed to start on the defensive end. They bought into it and accepted it and took pride in it,” stated Kruger.

On offense his team values the basketball averaging less than 11 turnovers per game coming into the NCAA tournament. The Rebels boast one of the nation’s top assist-to-turnover ratios at +1.4 but did turn it over 19 times Thursday against Kent State. If Kruger’s team does that against Kansas, he knows the Rebels will pay.

As is usually the case, a matchup that can be exploited on one end turns into a disadvantage at the other end. The Jayhawks have the size advantage in this one and the Rebels play without a traditional post presence. The tallest player on Kruger’s roster is 6-8, Matt Shaw but UNLV will present issues for KU’s big man on offense.

“I think it's going to be tough on us in terms of guarding them because they can really shoot it,” said 6-11 Sasha Kaun. “We're not really used to guarding the perimeter as much for bigs and I think it's going to be a tough matchup there.”

“It's unique because we're more of a traditional team and they're not traditional at all with their size, and it's a tribute to Lon because he's a fabulous coach and he's definitely got them in the right spots,” said Self.

Don’t confuse the Rebels lack of height for lack of athleticism or strength because there are plenty of both on this squad.

Shooting the three is surely a key to success for UNLV and for the Rebels it all starts with 6-0 guard Wink Adams (15.5 ppg). Adams is streaky and you can never count him out of a game as he can heat up at anytime. Senior Curtis Terry stands 6-5 and is the man who makes the Rebels go averaging more than five assists per game (11.5 ppg, 4.6 apg). Joe Darger is the third Rebel who averages in double-figures (11.2 ppg). Darger went 7-11 from the floor (including 4-8 from three) at Kent State and scored a game-high 18 points.

6-6 Renee Rougeau leads the Rebels in rebounding and creates havoc on the defensive end. Rougeau leads the team in steals and had three steals Thursday vs. Kent State. Rougeau is one of those players that UNLV will rely on to disrupt KU’s offense.

If there’s anything we should’ve learned from the first two days of the tournament its how critical energy is. If Kansas comes up with the type of fervor needed in an NCAA tournament environment they will advance to the Sweet Sixteen and move closer to its goal of a championship. Too many times in this tournament the higher seeded team has failed to come out of the gate with a purpose. Self needs to make sure the Jayhawks are ready for a UNLV team that will be playing in the most important game of their lives.

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