Tough Stretch Ahead For KU

Phog.net takes a look at how the next six games will tell us an awful lot about this KU team. What does head coach Bill Self think of this brutal stretch leading up to Big 12 play?

Phog.net spoke with KU head coach Bill Self and asked if he liked this schedule for a team featuring seven newcomers, the answer was simple, “yes it is good for us”, but Self also admitted “it is tough.”

The next six games could tell us all a lot more about where this KU team might be headed. The remaining six non-conference games feature a couple of ranked teams (Tennessee, Michigan State), two teams looking for that marquee upset to hang their hats on (Albany, Siena), and two coming off recent upset wins (Temple, Arizona).

According to Self, this is a good way for his team warm up for conference play.  

December 20, 2:30p ET – Temple

The record might say 5-3 but those who follow college basketball know that Temple is a dangerous foe. Former head coach John Chaney might be gone but Temple has proven it can still be a headache for opponents – just ask Tennessee. 6-5 senior Dionte Christmas nailed seven three-pointers, and scored 35 points in an 88-72 dismantling of the Vols last Saturday. To beat elite teams Christmas playing well is the key and some of his best performances have come in the most critical games over his career. There is a reason he was named 2008 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.

Unlike KU, Temple is experienced returns four starters and is already 3-1 on the season in true road games. The Owls have battled through some injury woes this season but appear to be gaining momentum and reaching full strength.

Joining Christmas as starters, 6-9 sophomore forward Lavoy Allen is playing with a fractured thumb and provides frontcourt stability. 7-0 senior center Sergio Olmos used to be a project but is now a legit center and one of three Temple players averaging double-figures.

Temple usually features a three guard lineup with Christmas, 6-4 senior playmaker Semaj Inge, and junior guard Ryan Brooks. Brooks averages 13.5 ppg and is the other three-point threat on head coach Fran Dunphy’s team. Christmas and Brooks have combined for 42 of Temple’s 58 three-pointers made this season.

“I think they’re good. Fran (Dunphy)’s a great coach, he always has been. He won big at Penn,” said Self at his weekly press conference.

“(Dionte) Christmas is a terrific player, and he’s not their only piece. They were very, very impressive against Tennessee. They play two bigs, they can play small but they traditionally like to play two big guys and play a lot of high-low and do a lot of things to get Christmas shots. They’re a nice team.”

December 23, 10:30p ET – at Arizona

The Big 12/Pac 10 hardwood series resumes with KU taking on a familiar opponent. The matchup conjures up memories of last season’s overtime thriller at Phog Allen Fieldhouse where the Hawks walked away with 76-72 win. This time the tide has turned and KU will have to go into Tucson for its first true road game of the season.

Though the Wildcats have been in disarray since Lute Olson’s retirement, Zona has managed to get it together and handed Gonzaga its only loss of the season, 69-64 last Saturday. The key to victory for Arizona thus far this season? Outshoot its opponents. Zona is 7-1 when shooting a better percentage than its opponents. The Cats are 7-2 overall, but much like Kansas, both of those losses could’ve gone the other way.

Interim head coach Russ Pennell’s Wildcats are led by three mainstays in junior guard Nic Wise, 6-10 junior forward Jordan Hill, and forward Chase Budinger. Wise posted a career-high 21 points against Gonzaga while Budinger, again, leads the team in scoring (18.8 ppg). Jordan Hill has been on a tear this season and notched 22 points against the Bulldogs to go along with three blocks and three steals. Hill was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week last week after shooting over 60 percent from the floor in Zona’s two victories (vs. San Diego St., and Gonzaga). Hill is averaging a double-double on the season (18.8ppg, 11.8 rpg) and has posted a double-double in six of Zona’s nine games.

The Cats have done it on both ends of the court shooting over 50 percent from three and holding opponents to 60 points a game on the defensive end. Kansas will have its hands full with a hyped crowd, a terrific shooting team, and one that has finally showed some moxie on the defensive end.

“I think we will know a lot more about ourselves as a team a week from today because we’ll have played a very good Temple team and then we’re going to play (obviously) a very good Arizona team at Tucson. So we’ll know a lot more about ourselves in the next week,” said Self.

December 30, 9:00p ET – Albany

For KU it’s back to the friendly confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse to take on America East foe, Albany. The Great Danes are off to a 6-4 start after parting with three do-everything seniors from last season. All four losses for Albany head coach Will Brown’s inexperienced bunch have come on the road. Kansas has eight new faces and Brown has seven in what will be a battle of new faces.

6-4 Tim Ambrose does a little bit of everything for Brown. He leads the team in scoring at 14.8 ppg and since he was blanked in a November 17th game at DePaul the sophomore hasn’t put up less than 13 points in any contest. Ambrose, an explosive player, is one of three Great Danes to average double-figures for Albany.

6-0 Freshman guard Anthony Raffa is another double-figure scorer (11.4 ppg) but that average appears to be on the rise. The freshman has scored 13 or more points in four of his last five games. Raffa is energetic and also capable of defending 94 feet.

6-6 junior forward Will Harris has boosted his scoring average this season by over eight points a game and is the other double-figure scorer (10.9 ppg). In eight of ten games this year one of these three players has led the Danes in scoring.

Surprisingly, 6-8 senior forward Brian Connelly who was the team’s top returning scorer,  is not on that list. Connelly provides the leadership on this team but he hasn’t quite packed the scoring punch that was expected of him quite yet (7.8 ppg). His minutes are down and so is his rebounding and field goal percentage vs. last season.

January 3, 2:00p ET – Tennessee

This one figures to be a test of KU’s toughness and intensity. Head coach Bruce Pearl’s team may not win every contest but they come to play and the Vols will be ready to bring some heat to Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

The Vols return six letter-winners and two starters from a team that went 31-5 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen of last year’s tournament. That hasn’t stopped Pearl from adding four freshmen, a JUCO, and a redshirt freshman.

Tennessee has impressed early earning neutral court, NCAA tourney-like wins vs. teams like Georgetown, Siena, and Marquette (though the game was in Nashville). Their only two blemishes the aforementioned loss to Temple and a loss down in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic to Gonzaga.

The scary thing about Pearl’s roster is that there is not one senior starter. Undersized center 6-9 Wayne Chism (11.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and 6-7 Tyler Smith (17.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg) combine for nearly 29 points a game. Both juniors also account for 13.0 rebounds a game. Smith also leads the team in assists (4.3 apg). Smith posted the school’s first triple-double in a game on December 3rd vs. UNC-Asheville (12 pts, 10 rebs, 10 assists) while Chism is coming off a career-high 26-point performance vs. Marquette.

The Vols third-leading scorer actually comes off the bench for Pearl. J.P. Prince (11.3 ppg) is a pivotal player but has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. Prince is the one of the main reasons Tennessee has outscored the opposition in bench points in all nine games this season. Freshman guard Scotty Hopson plays the wing at 6-7 and averages 8.7 ppg as a freshman. Point guard Bobby Maze is one of only two Vols to start all nine games this season (Chism is the other). Maze’s assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best in the country at 3.2.
 
Pearl’s team makes up for its lack of size with a frenetic pace and plenty of in-your-face pressure defense. Simply inbounding the ball is difficult for any opponent. Check out this stat – since 2006-2007 which is a stretch of 80 games, the Vols have forced 313 turnovers on inbounds plays. Amazing stuff and it will be a good test for these young Jayhawks.

January 6, 8:00p ET - Siena

Everybody’s upset special during the NCAA Tournament a year ago, 13th seeded Siena over 4th seeded Vanderbilt. The Saints delivered and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but now Siena must deal with expectations. All five starters return and now the Saints are trying to back up last season’s tourney success with a marquee win to hang their hats on. So far it has just been moral victories in the 2008-2009 season for Siena who has hung with teams like Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Oklahoma State, but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump.

The success of the Saints depends largely on senior captain Kenny Hasbrouck. Hasbrouck was projected as the preseason MAAC Player of the Year. Lately, he’s been mired in an awful slump that culminated with a zero points, two rebounds, one assist effort vs. Pittsburgh.

Head Coach Fran McCaffrey also counts on the services of junior Edwin Ubiles who is smooth and mans the point of the Siena press. Ubiles has also suffered stretches of inconsistent play this season but leads the team in scoring at 14.4 ppg, down almost three points from last season. He has a scored in double-digits in seven of Siena’s nine games and will be a focal point in the scouting report vs. KU. The 6-6 Ubiles can really play anyone of four positions for Siena.

Ubiles and fellow guard Clarence Jackson combined to go 0-11 from three vs. Pittsburgh so the struggles are not just with the team’s two top guns.

At the forward spot 6-9 Ryan Rossiter is a sophomore who’s starting to contribute more regularly. His minutes are up and so is his point production (27.4 mpg, 9.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg). He has had a 15 and a 14-rebound effort this season.

The Saints are hungry for an upset and perfectly capable of winning in Allen Fieldhouse if KU has an off night.

January 10, 1:00p ET – at Michigan State

This one will be a test. Any year going into East Lansing is never easy, something Bill Self knows all too well after his days at Illinois. Michigan State plays one of the nation’s toughest schedules every year and this season is no different. Head coach Tom Izzo will play whoever, whenever.

The Spartans have not been whole yet this season with freshman forward Delvon Roe still nursing a knee injury and big man Goran Suton nursing a knee injury of his own. But Suton is back and Roe is getting better with each game which is bad news for the opposition. Due to the injury issues coach Izzo has shuffled the parts for the better part of the non-conference schedule. The Spartans have used seven different starting lineups in nine games this season.

Guard Kalin Lucas distributes as well as anyone in the Big Ten and currently leads the conference in assists at nearly seven dimes per game. Lucas and Travis Walton are the only two Spartans to start all nine games for Izzo.

6-8 junior forward Raymar Morgan connects on nearly 68 percent of his shots from the field and leads the team in highlight reel dunks. Morgan also leads the team in scoring and has notched 20 or more on five occasions this season.

Guard Chris Allen is the third Spartan who averages double-figures (12.1 ppg), and in his last four games Allen has scored ten or more points. Allen is also shooting over 40 percent from three.

Michigan State has looked vulnerable early on but once Suton returns and Izzo has more options than a four-guard lineup, and Roe gets healthy the Spartans will be a force to reckon with on the national level.

It will be a brutal stretch of competition for KU but the type you love to compete in as a player and love to watch as a fan.


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