On The Matchup
By now, we're all familiar with Bill Self's Kansas teams. Atypically experienced, they get down and defend with a nasty vigor and use that to create offensive opportunities. Except that this isn't a regular Bill Self team. The Jayhawks rank 29th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the worst mark in Self's career at Kansas, and threaten to be his first ever non top-25 defense in the category in Lawrence.
Self's second team, in 2005, was 25th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Since then, he's had a top-10 defense every year with the exception of 2011, when his defense was 11th.But Self's young team — the Jayhawks are the second-youngest major conference team to Kentucky — has somewhat made up for that with their ability to score. With a lineup packed full of scoring efficiency, the Jayhawks are fourth nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, the result of a team that ranks in the top 50 in shooting (seventh in effective Field Goal Percentage), offensive rebounding (Kansas grabs 36.6 percent of the available offensive boards) and free throw rate (23rd nationally).
When Kansas has lost this season, it has largely been because the offense has let the Jayhawks down. Kansas averaged 0.83 points per possession against Villanova, 1.07 against Colorado, 0.92 against Florida and 0.88 against San Diego State. To put that into perspective, Kansas is averaging 1.214 points per possession in conference play.
Texas, on the other hand, comes in with a top-25 defense (the Longhorns check in at No. 21), but an offense that can be inconsistent (77th). Texas does everything fairly well on offense except shoot it, with the Longhorns ranking 232nd in three-point field goal percentage and 316th in free throw percentage. But opponents don't shoot the ball well on the 'Horns either, thanks to the fifth-best block rate in the country and the Longhorns' length inside.
Texas has been somewhat inconsistent defensively at times, though the Longhorns have been solid over their past four games, including one of the season's best performances in limiting Baylor to 0.83 points per possession.
Self's offense utilizes a variety of high-low action with plenty of motion and ball screens, predicated on reversing the ball to create great looks inside on strong post-ups. When the Jayhawks are at their best, they're playing inside-out, getting the ball to dangerous spots and kicking it out to open outside shooters if a double-team comes. Kansas shoots 57.0 percent on its two-point attempts, third-best nationally.
That's a big part of the reason the Jayhawks have far-and-away the Big 12's most efficient offense despite a horrific turnover rate. Kansas shows its youth by turning the ball over once every five possessions, making its high efficiency numbers that much more amazing. Basically, when Kansas isn't turning the ball over, the Jayhawks are scoring, and if they could trim those turnover problems, it isn't a leap to suggest that they would be the country's most efficient offense. They aren't far off, even with those issues, and Kansas out-fired Duke, the nation's No. 2 offense, 1.25 PPP to 1.11 when the two teams faced off earlier this year.
Much of the focus, and rightfully so, comes on the Jayhawks' two potential top draft picks. In Andrew Wiggins (6-8 200) and Joel Embiid (7-0 250), Kansas could have the top two picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, in some order. That was expected of Wiggins, who entered this season with an unbelievable amount of hype, though it has become increasingly hard to ignore Embiid's seemingly unlimited upside with his size, coordination, skill level and athleticism.
With the pressure put on Wiggins to succeed, there wasn't any way for him to meet expectations, though he's averaging 16.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. And he might just be figuring things out, scoring 27 and 29 in his last two times out. He's a hyper-efficient scorer in transition because of his elite athleticism, and he flashes the ability to score with a quick, smooth jumper as well. When it's falling, as it has been the last couple games, when Wiggins has been 6-for-10 from three, he's nearly unstoppable, taking just 29 shots to score the 56 combined points in his last two outings. The main thing with Wiggins is just effort. Like Ben McLemore just a year ago, Wiggins isn't an Alpha Dog, take 25 shots to get his 30 points type of player.
Embiid has made the biggest leap this year. A high-level rim defender (his block rate is 13th in the nation) and rebounder (7.6 per game), Embiid has also begun to show the ability to string together multiple offensive moves and score at an efficient rate down low. His assist rate out of the post is also pretty high, as he's improved a ton at finding open players when he's been double-teamed. The next step is just for him to cut his turnover rate down.
That's something that point guard Naadir Tharpe (5-11 170) has been able to do in conference play. Often seen as the weak link in the Kansas starting lineup, Tharpe can drive fans nuts with his tendency to play hero ball, commit silly turnovers and take pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock. But he's been efficient in Big 12 play with 39 assists to 12 turnovers (that's a 3.25-to-1 ratio) while shooting 50 percent from three and adding a long distance threat.
Shooting guard Wayne Selden (6-5 230) is considered a lottery pick when he comes out as well, though that might not be for another year. A bullish off-guard who can get to the rim, Selden is scoring 12.9 points per game in conference play, and he shoots a respectable 37 percent from behind the arc.
Perry Ellis (6-8 225) is one of the most efficient low-post scorers in the nation, somebody who does an excellent job of shielding opponents away from the ball on his post ups. He's scoring 13.3 points per game and grabbing almost seven rebounds per game.
So what's missing? Other that Wiggins on the wing and Embiid down low, the Jayhawks lack impactful defenders. And when Embiid checks out and Kansas loses its primary rim protector, the Jayhawks can give up too many looks at the basket.
Still, Kansas is unbelievably deep. Point guard Frank Mason (5-11 185) is a bulldog who powers his way to the rim and can add more of a defensive presence than Tharpe. Brannen Greene (6-7 215) was considered a highly touted recruit in his own right, and was likely to start until the Jayhawks picked up Wiggins late in the process. He's an outstanding outside shooter. And Kansas can turn to Jamari Traylor (6-8 220), Tarik Black (6-9 260) and Landen Lucas (6-10 240) down low. Traylor and Black are usually the two low-post subs, though Black turned an ankle and has been replaced by Lucas in recent games. If Black can go, the Memphis transfer would play over Lucas.
How Can Texas Win?
One of the more interesting parts of this matchup will be Texas's defense at the rim against Kansas's ability to generate easy buckets inside. Embiid hasn't typically had to work against other legitimate centers, which is precisely what he'll face in Cameron Ridley (6-10 285). Can Ridley get Embiid in foul trouble? If so, the Longhorns will face a much easier route to buckets at the rim.
Another factor is Isaiah Taylor, who scored 27 points by dropping in floater after floater against Baylor. Taylor is quick enough to get by Tharpe, and his floater is tailor-made to beat Kansas's length at the rim by lofting his shot before the shot-blockers can get on top of him. And while Texas can't come close to matching the size of Selden and Wiggins on the wing, that could also create driving opportunities for the quickness of guys like Demarcus Holland. A big game from Jonathan Holmes, who faces a non-defender in Ellis, would also be a huge boon for the Longhorns.
Ultimately, as simple as it sounds, this one will come down to making shots. When Kansas hits, especially from the outside, the Jayhawks just have too many scorers for a team to defend. And when Texas is hitting its shots, the Longhorns become a really tough out because they have the personnel to defend as well.
It's a huge game for both teams, as a Kansas win leaves the Jayhawks at least two games up (in the loss column) on every team in the Big 12. A Texas win not only brings Kansas back to the pack a bit, but also brings the Jayhawks back to the two-conference-loss Longhorns and firmly inserts Texas into the Big 12 title race.