SCOUTING THE JAYHAWKS
Kansas lists four guards in its starting lineup, but with a pair of them standing six feet, eight inches tall, it's not as if the Jayhawks are height challenged. Freshman Josh Jackson (6-8, 205 lbs.) and junior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (6-8, 205 lbs.) give the Jayhawks excellent scoring options on drives and in the mid-range. Mykhailiuk is the team's second best 3-point shooter, and takes more than half of his shots from distance, but Jackson gets to the rim and scores inside at an NBA level. Jackson's listing as a guard is for NBA purposes only, as he functions more as a forward in the KU lineup. He's second in both scoring (15.1) and rebounding (6.7).
The “real” guards might be even better than the swing duo. Senior Frank Mason (5-11, 190 lbs.) is simply stellar, averaging 20 points and 5.4 assists per game while making a sizzling 53.7% of his three point chances. His knowledge of the game, shot selection and decision making have him on every player of the year watch list, and deservedly so. Standing a bit in his shadow, Devonte Graham (6-2, 185 lbs.) tallies 13.5 points and 4,8 boards per game, and is yet another effective shooter from distance.
The lone true post player in the first five, senior Landen Lucas (6-10, 250 lbs.), has ranged from good to very good. He’s averaging a nearly-even 7.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, with the latter being his primary importance. While some observers have criticized Kansas for its lack of bigs, does it really matter when they’ve ripped off 18 victories in a row?
Kansas is so good that Carlton Bragg, a starter earlier this season and a top-tier recruit, has been moved to the bench for much of this year. Bragg (6-10, 240 lbs.) is still helping, with 6.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per outing, and is joined by Lagerald Vick (6-5, 175 lbs.), who shows nearly eight points per game this season. Vick, like Bragg, has five starts this year, so it's clear that the Jayhawks don't lose much when they go to the first part of their bench. Udoka Azubuike (7-0, 280 lbs.) is the only other player with significant minutes (12.9 per game) so the Jayhawks do rely on a bit of a shorter bench than some. Still, mixing and matching eight players, all of whom have started at least five games this year, has to be a joy for head coach Bill Self.
West Virginia has three consecutive home wins against the Jayhawks. Does that have any effect on Tuesday night's game?
|WVU (15-4 / 4-3) vs. Kansas (18-1 / 7-0)||Tue Jan 24||7:00 PM EST|
|WVU Coliseum||Morgantown, WV||Series: KU 6-3|
|RPI: WVU - 44 KU - 6||TV: ESPN||Sirius/XM: 84/84|
Past performances, especially ones spanning years, usually don't have a great deal of effect on how a future game will play out. If the personnel in a rematch is the same, that can provide some indicators, but from year to year teams change their personas. That's certainly true for this contest, as Kansas has become more guard oriented, while West Virginia is fighting through a period where its press and rebounding have been less effective. However, for those holdover players that remain on the rosters, they have to acknowledge that the Mountaineers haven't been intimidated by the Kansas pedigree, and that they can muster a performance that would result in a win.
Given WVU's previous three games, that's tough to predict – or even view as a realistic outcome. Opposing that view, though, is the reverse – who would have predicted three consecutive sub-par West Virginia outings after the resounding home win over #1 Baylor? The Mountaineer downhill slide could be reversed in this game – and it mostly depends on match-ups, in addition to the Mountaineers' mental state.
One of the keys for West Virginia in this game is defending the 3-pointer. Kansas excels at playing inside out, and when the Jayhawks get open shots they typically knock them down. Whether WVU goes all-out in its zone press or modifies things somewhat to try to hide some of the deficiencies that have cropped up recently, it must find shooters once the ball crosses halfcourt. It can't collapse or commit two or three players to stopping drives – otherwise, players like Mason, Graham and Mykhailiuk will have an open range for perimeter jumpers.
The mental approach to this game will also be key, especially for the Mountaineers. While Kansas coaches and players might use the three-game road losing streak as motivation, WVU appears to be in a bit more of a precarious situation. Body language on the Mountaineer side hasn't been the greatest during the past three games, and while that might not signal a meltdown, it certainly isn't great to see some of the reactions when a teammate makes a mistake. West Virginia's teamwork is critical to its success, and there has to be more picking up and support when things go wrong on the court.
West Virginia's rebounding advantage has dipped to a +3.2 mark after underwhelming performances on the defensive boards recently. Kansas, which needs no second chances to boost its superior shooting, checks in with a +6.6 mark. In order to pull of the upset, WVU will have to earn an advantage in this stat column.
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WVU's stated goal for deflections - passes and dribbles that it is able to get its hands on and at least disrupt, if not outright steal - is 40 per game. In its wins, it is averaging 49.4 deflections, while its average in losses is 33.9.
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One chink in KU's armor is one that is familiar to WVU fans – free throw shooting. Despite players who can be classified as marksmen from the field, Kansas is making just 64% of its attempts from the line. Jackson (56%) and Mykhailiuk (65%) are among those who underperform, based on their abilities from the field.
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West Virginia's advantage in several defensive categories has shrunk in Big 12 play. In those seven games, WVU is forcing just four more turnovers per game that it is committing, and is allowing foes to outshoot it from the field overall and from 3-point range.The Mountaineers have also seen their rebounding edge almost disappear -- they have nabbed just ten more total boards than their opponents in conference play.