Bring Your Track Shoes

SAN ANTONIO — Only the fastest will survive. Just like a track race, when KU and North Carolina meet in the Final Four on Saturday at the Alamodome, the first one to the finish line will come out on top.

KU likes to run, and the Jayhawks certainly know that Roy Williams’ Tar Heels love to push the ball at every opportunity.

“We know what ‘Carolina wants to do, and that’s how we play our best,” said KU coach Bill Self. “I may be wrong, but it will probably be a game with a lot of possessions. They do play faster than Texas. We got to play a lot better than we did (against Davidson in the Elite Eight) in order to have a chance to have some success.”

While Williams’ teams at Kansas ran with Kevin Pritchard and Adonis Jordan at point guard, the Jayhawks didn’t kick the fast break into high gear until the Jacque Vaughn years (1993-97). Vaughn brought a new dimension to the KU attack, which became even more explosive during the latter part of Williams’ tenure at Kansas.

Using a three-guard lineup in 2002 (Final Four team) with Jeff Boschee, Kirk Hinrich, and Aaron Miles, the Jayhawks averaged 90.9 points per game, the highest point total since the 1989-90 team racked up 92.1 points a game.

Williams has continued his high-octane offense at ‘Carolina. First, he had speedy Raymond Felton to lead the break. Now, Williams has sophomore point guard Ty Lawson running the show. The Tar Heels have run over opponents this season, averaging 89.2 points per game (No. 2 in nation). UNC has scored at least 100 points eight times this season, including twice in the NCAA tournament.

The Jayhawks aren’t far behind at 80.6 points per game (No. 12 in nation). This is Self’s first team at Kansas to average at least 80 points. KU has scored at least 100 points three times this season — against Louisiana-Monroe in the season opener on Nov. 9, versus Baylor on Feb. 9, and against Texas Tech on Senior Night on March 3.

While Self’s Jayhawks don’t run as much as ‘Carolina, the ‘Hawks love to push the ball in transition and create opportunities off their defense.

"I think we have to be who we are,” Self said. “If you look at the times that we've struggled this year, it's been times when it's basically been a low possession game or we couldn't generate points off a defense or in transition and I think that's what ‘Carolina does better than anybody, is generate points before the defense is set.

“Of course we don't want the score to be 110-108, unless we have 110, but we do want possessions and we want to play fast because that's who we are. We aren't going to change who we are after 38 games, but we can play smart and we can certainly pick our spots."

Self’s players welcome an up-tempo game. KU has guards in Sherron Collins, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Brandon Rush who can run all day.

"We play fast so we are going to still play how we play and are not going to do anything different,” Collins said. “They play fast and are going to try to push the ball and we are going to have to be ready for it.

"We need to do what we've been doing all year and that is getting up and down the floor. When we are playing good offense that means we are playing good defense, so the main thing is to play our game.”

The ‘Hawks will have to play great defense to beat UNC. One of the big keys is if KU can force North Carolina into turnovers and make the Tar Heels miss shots. If that happens, KU will be able to run and get easy baskets. On the flip side, the Jayhawks’ guards must take care of the ball and KU must make at least 50 percent of its shots to keep the Tar Heels from getting their running game unleashed.

Offensively, at least on paper, this is quite an evenly matched game. KU shoots 50.7 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three-point range, while ‘Carolina makes 49.1 percent of its shots and 37.9 percent from beyond the arc.

However, look at the defensive numbers. The Jayhawks are No. 3 in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.379), while North Carolina ranks 102nd (.423). KU has even taken its ‘D’ up a notch in the tournament, allowing just 57.8 points per game. For the season, KU’s opponents average 61.2 points a game, compared to 72.2 points for UNC’s foes. (North Carolina’s 89.2 points per game still give the Tar Heels the third best scoring margin in the country at 17.0, while KU ranks No. 1 in scoring margin at 19.4.)

Edge to Kansas on defense, though this will be the biggest defensive challenge of the year for the Jayhawks.

In a game where both teams love to run, the team which can make the defensive stops down the stretch will win this game.

While KU won’t stop North Carolina’s running game, the Jayhawks can slow it down. And if that happens, the Jayhawks will be flying first to the finish line.

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