Jayhawks Coming In
Oh, what a difference a game makes. Heading into the Kansas State game on Monday, the Jayhawks were dead in the water. Conference fodder. Losers of three straight and in (gasp) second-place in the Big 12. And then they played the game.
Kansas ran Kansas State out of the gym in an 83-62 game that wasn't ever close, with the Jayhawks completing a clean sweep of the team that had replaced Kansas at the top of the league standings and putting the Jayhawks back into a tie for first.
When Kansas lost its first conference game against Oklahoma State, the Jayhawks' lack of a point guard was fingered as the primary reason. Elijah Johnson has made an effort there, but he's a really good shooting guard who was asked to play point guard because of a lack of other options. Johnson scored better than 15 points per game last postseason while playing the two, but found himself turnover prone at the point.
The Jayhawks suffered from two more losses, including a ghastly defeat at TCU before potentially finding the answer at that position in backup Naadir Tharpe. Tharpe was the difference early against Kansas State, picking apart the Wildcats with his speed and passing, dishing out six assists in the first half. Is Tharpe the long-term answer? The Jayhawks do spend quite a bit of time with both he and Johnson on the court at the same time, and Tharpe continues to come off the bench (for now), though his minutes will continue to grow.
One thing's for sure: when the Jayhawks get good point guard play, they're tough to stop. Both Ben McLemore (16.8 points per game) and Travis Releford (11.8 PPG) are among the top finishers in the Big 12, which is part of the reason the plan against Kansas is to not allow any fast break opportunities. Both shoot over 40 percent from three (McLemore 43.5 percent, Releford 43.3 percent) and better than 50 percent from the field (Releford 59.4 percent, McLemore 51.3 percent). And you can't foul either guy, with McLemore making 87.6 percent of his freebies and Releford sitting at 82.4 percent. Additionally, Releford is probably the Big 12's best perimeter defender.
Jeff Withey is the center, and the centerpiece of the Jayhawk defense. The all-time leading shot-blocker in Kansas history averages better than four blocks per game. And he's developed some offensive game to go with it, scoring 13.2 points per game and grabbing 8.3 boards per contest. He's joined in the frontcourt by energy man Kevin Young who is typically in the right place at the right time. He's not much of a scorer, but grabs 6.8 rebounds per game.
As said above, the No. 1 thing is to not give up any fast break opportunities. That was a big part of the problem with the Jayhawks in Austin. When the Longhorns were able to keep the Jayhawks in the halfcourt, Kansas struggled to create points. But a few timely transition buckets turned the game in Kansas's favor, despite the fact that the Longhorns did a nice job of shot-making themselves.
Kansas hasn't been especially great at defending the three-point line, so it's imperative that Texas hits the open looks it gets from that distance. And like Texas, Kansas is significantly better defensively when the Jayhawks can get their halfcourt defense set, so any fast break points would be greatly appreciated.
It's always tough for opposing teams to win at Allen Fieldhouse. And with mega recruit (and Texas target) Julius Randle and ESPN College Gameday in attendance, the Jayhawks should have a fired up atmosphere, complete with the retirement of Mario Chalmers's jersey. If the Longhorns want to leave with a win, they'll have to protect the ball, eliminate fast break points for Kansas while getting a few of their own and knock down open three-point attempts. Do that, and the Longhorns will have a shot.