Longhorns get a hot opponent
But then — thanks in large part of Ben McLemore's emergence, the return of Kevin Young and a clearer division of offensive roles — the Jayhawks put together arguably the best December in college basketball, playing three potential NCAA Tournament teams and rolling two of them by an average of 32.5 points. Only once in the month did Kansas have a single-digit game, an eight-point road win at top-10 Ohio State.
January hasn't been quite as kind, with the Jayhawks beating Temple by seven and needing a banked-in last-second three from McLemore to send the Iowa State game to overtime (Kansas rolled in the extra period to win by eight). Kansas also sleep-walked through the first half at Texas Tech before rolling over the Red Raiders in the second half.
But this could still be the nation's most dangerous team, as was evidenced by the Jayhawks' most recent outing, a too-easy 17-point drubbing of Baylor on Monday.
Kansas coach Bill Self has produced a high-level defense nearly every year he's been in Lawrence, and this year is no exception. The Jayhawks have the country's No. 4 defense in adjusted defensive efficiency, but also pair that with an offense that ranks in the nation's top 20 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and in effective field goal percentage. And don't foul the Jayhawks either. Kansas shoots 74.3 percent from the line as a team.
Matchup of elite defenses
Both Kansas and Texas (8-8, 0-3) enter the contest with two of the nation's top 15 defenses per KenPom, with Kansas at No. 4 and Texas at No. 13. And both have accomplished that feat by holding opponents to poor shooting percentages with their length.
How Kansas has accomplished that feat is no secret. The Jayhawks have arguably the country's top shot-blocker in seven-footer Jeff Withey, who is second in the country in block rate. As a team, the Jayhawks swat 21.8 percent of opponents' field goal attempts (No. 2 nationally), forcing opponents to shoot just 36.0 percent on their two-point attempts (first). Kansas's opponents score 34.5 percent of their points from behind the three-point line, basically because they have to. The Jayhawks' effective field goal percentage defense is third nationally.
Texas isn't quite as efficient overall, and doesn't block as many shots, though the Longhorns have an excellent block rate of 14.2 percent as a team, good for 20th in the country (Cameron Ridley is still 30th in the nation in block rate). And while the Jayhawks excel at limiting two-point field goal percentage, the Longhorns are better overall, holding opponents to an eFG% of 37.9 (first in the nation) and a three-point shooting percentage of 23.8 (first). Texas also does a great job of protecting the rim, finishing just behind the Jayhawks in two-point field goal percentage defense at 38.9 percent, third best in the country. Jayhawk opponents are more successful shooting from three, making 31.2 percent of their three-point attempts, though that's still a mark that puts Kansas in the top fourth of the country (77th).
While Texas is slightly better at limiting shooters, the Jayhawks have the Longhorns in two key areas: the Jayhawks do an outstanding job of collecting Withey's blocks (he puts relatively few out of play, and Kansas retains a high percentage of those swats), and the Jayhawks do a better job of closing out possessions by limiting offensive boards. While the Jayhawks aren't as good a rebounding team as they were a year ago, they rank 71st in defensive rebounding rate, significantly better than Texas's rank of 165th.
Neither Texas nor Kansas do a great job of forcing turnovers.
With both defenses being such solid groups in the halfcourt, look for both teams to get out and run a bit when they get the chance to try and take advantage of a defense that isn't set. Texas and Kansas play at a nearly identical tempo, probably best defined as transition fueled by defensive stops. This could be especially important for Texas, to try and ensure the country's 257th-best offense (per AOE) gets some clean looks.
Looking at the Kansas individuals
The Jayhawks employ a jumbo starting lineup that has excellent height and length for every position, starting with 6-foot-4 point guard Elijah Johnson and running through the 7-foot Withey. The experience level is also outstanding, with four seniors in the starting five.
Johnson (6-4 195) is a versatile player who averaged better than 15 points per game in last year's postseason while playing shooting guard and helping Kansas to the National Championship game. This year, he's shifted over to the point, and while he hasn't assumed a ton of the scoring burden, scoring 9.9 points per game and shooting 35.7 percent from three, he does get a number of clutch baskets. He's also dishing out 5.2 assists per game.
Mclemore (6-5 195) and Travis Releford (6-6 210) are athletic swingmen with hyper-efficient offensive games. Both do an outstanding job of getting to the basket — Releford gets 51 percent of his attempts at the rim, while McLemore gets 35 percent of his shots there — and finishing, and they rank 1-2 (Releford first) in the Big 12 in free throw percentage.
McLemore gets the most pub, and has been compared by some to Ray Allen for his smooth athleticism and silky jumper. He's scoring 16.4 points per game, grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game and blocking about a shot per contest while making it look easy. He's shooting 54.7 percent from two, 43.5 percent from three and 87.7 percent from the free throw line. McLemore suffered a grade one ankle sprain against Baylor, but is expected to be fine for Saturday.
But Releford is a thinking-man's candidate for first-team All-Big 12 as well. He is scoring 13.0 points per game as one of the nation's most efficient scorers with an eFG% of 69.8 (fifth in the nation) and a True Shooting percentage of 73.9 (first nationally). Looking at more conventional measures, the dynamite finisher shoots 74.0 percent on his two-point attempts, 41.9 percent on his threes and makes 88.5 percent of his free throws. And none of that counts his defense — while Withey gets the lion's share of the credit, Releford might be the best perimeter defender in the Big 12.
Young (6-8 190) averages 7.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He's an energy guy who gets his hands on a ton of loose balls, and he serves as the Jayhawks' best by-rate rebounder. Young ranks in the country's top 100 in both offensive (54th) and defensive (100) rebounding rates.
Withey (7-0 235) appears to have put everything together pretty well, as evidenced by his stat line of 13.1 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game and 4.7 blocks per game. He's 13th in the Big 12 in scoring, fourth in rebounding and first in blocks. Considering that just a few years ago, he was considered a liability, that goes to show the work that he's been able to put in, and the job of the Kansas coaching staff.
Sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe (5-11 170) is the first guy off the bench, and helps to supply a pure point guard to the lineup. Tharpe takes more than half of his shots from behind the arc, making 37.2 percent of those attempts, but his strength is his ability to handle the ball and set up buckets. His assist rate isn't quite as high as Johnson's, but he also turns the ball over less often. Tharpe also helps in that he can help bump Johnson for the two to give some rest to the wing players.
The other two primary backups are both big men, with freshmen Perry Ellis (6-8 225) providing a smooth offensive game and Jamari Traylor (6-8 220) bringing energy and defense. The two of them combine to average 7.9 points, 6.7 boards and 1.5 blocks per game.