Kansas basketball just keeps thundering along. The Jayhawks have won or shared the Big 12 title each of the last eight years and with a two-game lead in the conference, Kansas is well positioned to make it nine in a row. And they’re doing it with the kind of depth in their starting lineup that wins championships—and not just conference ones.
Andrew Wiggins was the most hyped of highly touted incoming class of freshmen throughout the country. The forward hasn’t disappointed, averaging 16 points/6 rebounds per game. But Wiggins has been displaced as the projected #1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft, and by a teammate no less. Joel Embiid, the seven-foot center, is averaging 11 points/8 rebounds and demonstrating defensive skills that NBA scouts love.
As if having one of your own steal the thunder of the hottest freshman in the country, you can make a good argument that Kansas has two more players who are even better, at least in terms of their production this year at the college level. Perry Ellis, a 6’8” sophomore, is averaging 13 points/7 rebounds. And guard Naadir Tharpe is one of the Big 12’s best playmakers.
Whomever you think is better, it’s an extraordinary group that head coach Bill Self has put together, and it’s no surprise that Kansas is now the betting line favorite to win the national championship, at 9-2.
The Jayhawks are 9-1 in what is a very good Big 12, with five more teams projected to make the NCAA Tournamentby ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Here’s a few quick points on the rest of the league…
*Texas is in second place at 7-3 and relies on two solid forwards in Cameron Ridley (11 points/8 rebounds) and Jonathan Holmes (13 points/7 rebounds). But the weekend didn’t go well for the Longhorns—Holmes has a knee injury and we’re not sure how serious it is, and they got blown out by Kansas State.
*Oklahoma is an under-the-radar team to keep an eye on. The Sooners have a well-balanced team with two prolific scorers in Buddy Hield outside and Cameron Clark on the baseline. Ryan Spangler is one of the best rebounders in the league and Jordan Woodward is a top playmaker. OU has the pieces to make a nice run in March, and are currently projected for a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
*Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim dropped 43 points on lowly TCU this weekend. He’s averaging 20 ppg, the best in the Big 12 and is the conference’s third-best rebounder. His team is 18-4, projected for #4 seed, and Ejim should be frontrunner for Big 12 MVP.
*Kansas State is slotted for a #9 seed by Lunardi, the lowest of the Big 12 teams. They’re at 16-7, and after they deal with Kansas on Monday. But after that, the Wildcats play Baylor twice, Texas Tech and TCU. If K-State just grabs three wins, they’re up to 19 and that probably gets them in. Not to mention the fact they don’t have to write off Iowa State at home, or road trips to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
*Oklahoma State is going to get an NCAA bid, currently projected for #6, with a 16-7 record. But the problems they’ve had with Marcus Smart’s outbursts are the most visible example of what is a disappointing team thus far.
*But no one spells disappointment better than Baylor. The Bears have the best shotblocker in the league in Isaiah Austin, a great three-point shooter in Brady Heslip and a quality forward in Cory Jefferson, and are sitting on 2-8 in the league. With a 14-9 record overall, Baylor can still make the NCAA Tournament, but they need to think about going 7-1 the rest of the way. With Kansas no longer on the schedule, it’s doable, but the defense needs to tighten up.
Kansas basketball has been so ruthlessly efficient over the years that it’s easy for them to become an afterthought. You know they’ll win the Big 12, be a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and a potential Final Four pick in your bracket, but the consistent efficiency that the Jayhawk program operates makes it easy to take them for granted—to assume that every KU team is basically the same.
Maybe that’s true, but this February has been anything but ordinary. Bill Self made national news with a public lambasting of his team and Kansas lost three in a row. Then they turned it right back around with a five-game win streak that included last night’s wild 108-96 overtime win at Iowa State. So just who are these guys at Kansas and can they win Self’s second national title? Here’s a closer look at the personnel and a special emphasis on the key moments of February’s roller-coaster ride.
Jeff Withey may or may not be Kansas’ best player, but the 7-foot center is certainly the most consequential. In an era where true post players at the center position are hard to find, the senior is just that. He averages 14 points/8 rebounds a night, and while he’s not a dominator that makes NBA scouts drool, he’s a very difficult matchup for most anyone.
Even with Withey’s presence in the middle, Self’s team is still backcourt-heavy though. Kevin Young, a senior with pedestrian numbers is the only other starter on the frontcourt, is this not a team that has great depth at any position. But a trio of guards is difficult to defend and offer diversity in production.
Freshman Ben McLemore has emerged as the leading scorer, with 16 ppg and he does it with high efficiency. McLemore shoots 49 percent from the floor and a red-hot 42 percent from behind the arc. Senior Travis Releford shoots even better, an astonishing 61 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three-point range. Elijah Johnson runs the show at the point and is a competent shooter. Actually, Iowa State fans might be forgiven for thinking Elijah is a little more than competent, given his 39-point explosion last night in Ames, but for the season Johnson averages 10 ppg and shoots 40 percent from the floor.
The combination is a well-balanced floor. Kansas can open the half-court offense up with the three-ball and then pound it to Withey in the post if defenses extend to far to the perimeter. All they need to do is make sure everyone stays healthy and out of foul trouble and the balance is there for another big run in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course the first half of February made it look like even a big run in the Big 12 tournament was wishful thinking. Kansas hit a funk, that started with a loss to Oklahoma State at home, a stunning upset at TCU and another road loss at Oklahoma. Here’s a brief summation of what went awry in each game…
*The backcourt defense didn’t get it done in the 85-80 loss to Okie State. The talented Cowboy guards, Markel Brown and Marcus Smart, scored 25 & 28 points respectively. Releford was a non-factor for Kansas, preventing the Jayhawks from answering.
*Self’s highly publicized postgame press conference came after the TCU game. As ugly as the loss looks on paper, I’m inclined to cut them a little bit of a break. KU shot 30 percent from the floor and every team is going to have games where they can’t buy a shot. Their own defense and rebounding was actually pretty good. I thought Self’s comments—“this is the worst Kansas team since James Naismith”—were rather funny, but I never read too much into this game as a long-term predictor of Jayhawk fortunes.
*I was concerned with the ensuing loss to Oklahoma though. Even though a 72-66 road loss at a likely NCAA Tournament team is nothing to be ashamed of on paper, the fact a smallish Sooners team stayed with Kansas on the boards in spot where you would have thought all the Jayhawks intensity would be at max levels, was a little disconcerting.
It turned out that OU loss was finally where things bottomed out. Kansas has now won their last five. Two of the wins were against bad teams in Texas and the home rematch with TCU. But three others have been significant, with a home win over Kansas State, then road wins at Oklahoma State and last night in Iowa State. Here are the pertinent points on this trio of games…
*The rebounding ferocity came to bear in the 83-62 destruction of Kansas State, a game the Jayhawks had to win if they were going to keep their run of eight straight Big 12 titles (outright or shared) going. Withey and Young led up an effort that produced a 39-20 rebound advantage.
*Kansas played tough defense against Oklahoma State, holding the Cowboys to 33 percent shooting from the floor, while Withey and Young again cleaned up the glass in a 68-67 double-overtime thriller.
*The 108-96 final from last night’s game in Iowa State will raise everyone’s eyebrow, but Kansas was the team that defended better inside the arc. The Cyclones were forced outside where they chucked up 41 treys and only shot 35 percent from the floor. I won’t go so far as to see that Withey and Young’s combined 26 points and 19 rebounds was the biggest point of the night—not when Johnson dropped 39—but the play of the frontcourt personnel for Kansas was certainly the factor that distinguished them from their opponent.
I like what I see in this Kansas team. The sustained effort by Withey and Young to control the glass, and the quality defense—holding good teams to sub-40 percent from the floor for two consecutive games—suggest that Self has gotten his team’s attention and has them bringing the intensity. When the effort levels are there, the overall balanced lineup is a tough out for anyone.
Before we get to March Madness though, there’s still the question of a regular season championship streak to keep going. Kansas is tied with Kansas State in the loss column, but the schedule works for KU—they’ll have easy home games with West Virginia and Texas Tech that set up a season-ending finale at talented, but inconsistent Baylor. It’s been a more interesting ride than normal for Kansas basketball this year, but it looks set for a familiar finish.
SPEAKING OF BAYLOR
When I did my regular Monday podcast yesterday with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network, we both unveiled our current field of 68 if the season were to end today. I had Baylor as the very last team in and wasn’t real happy about having to include the schizophrenic Bears. ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Baylor as his last team out. This is about as pure a bubble team as you can imagine.
It’s also a team that can be very dangerous. Baylor’s got good interior personnel, with 7’1” freshman Isaiah Austin and power forward Cory Jefferson. The backcourt has an explosive scorer in Pierre Jackson, and they should be getting more than they are from playmaker A.J. Walton and three-point shooter Brady Heslip.
If Baylor puts it all together, they’re the one team that has the talent to match up with Kansas and that regular season finale—a Saturday night ESPN game at 6 PM ET on March could be about a championship for the Jayhawks and an NCAA bid for the Bears. I’m disgusted with the inconsistency and underachievement Baylor has shown, but there’s no denying what they could be if everything clicks at the right time.
TheSportsNotebook’s buildup to the Final Four continues today as we look at the Kansas Jayhawks. Just as we’ve done the last two days with Louisville and Ohio State, we’ll look at the personnel Kansas relies on, the path their season took and their modern history at the Final Four.
PERSONNEL: At the start of the season I thought Kansas was a two-man team, with Tyshawn Taylor at the point and Thomas Robinson in the post, and that they would struggle (by Kansas’ standards) in a rebuilding year. At the end of the season I still think Kansas is a two-man team, but the job Bill Self has done in fitting the role players around them is winning appropriate applause in the sports punditry these days.
Robinson is a beast in the paint, averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds. His muscular frame makes him virtually impossible to push around on the blocks. Taylor scores 17ppg and distributes the ball well. He hits nearly 50 percent of his shots inside the arc, and nearly 40 percent from downtown. What has to be figured out is why someone who can shoot the ball that well struggles from the foul line. Both Taylor and Robinson are sub-70 percent at the stripe, something that’s clearly a problem with Taylor handling the ball in an end-game situation or if the opposing defense wants to bring the Hack-A-Shaq strategy to the college ranks and apply it on Robinson. Elijah Johnson is the best of the rest, as he chips in ten points a game and is solid handling the ball—although his free throw shooting is only marginally better than Taylor’s. Travis Releford is a solid shooter in the 15-foot range, though not as much from three-point land and this is another KU starter who can’t hit his foul shots consistently. The only one who can is center Jeff Withey, the 7’0” junior whose job is to eat space and make opponents pay if they focus too much on Robinson. Withey can be up and down and when he’s up, Kansas is unstoppable in the low post. Sixth man Connor Teahan also gets time, although there’s nothing in his production levels that we need to keep an eye on.
SEASON ARC: Self didn’t waste time in booking quality opposition. Kansa went 3-2 before Thanksgiving, but two of the wins were over Georgetown and UCLA, while the losses were to Kentucky and Duke. Then the Jayhawks went 7-1, with an aggravating loss to Davidson, but a win over an Ohio State team missing Jared Sullinger and also victories over NCAA Tournament-bound teams in South Florida and Long Beach State. Conference play started with seven straight wins, including a surprisingly easy win over Baylor in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. From January 28 to February 8 Kansas split four games. One of the losses was an epic battle at Missouri where they let a lead get away in the final two minutes. But the last of that stretch was yet another decisive win over Baylor, this one on the road. The Baylor win led into seven more, which was mostly a softer schedule, but included another epic battle with Missouri—this time Kansas won it, rallying from 19 down to take the win and the Big 12 championship in overtime.
In the conference tournament, Kansas knocked off Texas A&M, but lost to Baylor, as the Bears appeared to be finally getting their act together. For the Jayhawks though, that led to some sluggish play in the NCAA Tournament, and their survival to play this Saturday is one of March 2012’s great unsolved mysteries. They did everything they could to play their way out of wins against Purdue in the second round and N.C. State in the Sweet 16. Finally, the team stepped up against North Carolina last Sunday, with Robinson and Withey dominating a highly regarded Tar Heel front line.
FINAL FOUR HISTORY: The focus here is the modern NCAA Tournament, which would start in 1976 after the Wooden Dynasty fell, though we’ll note that Kansas made Final Four appearances in 1971 and 1974, another contribution to a school with a rich basketball heritage. But it took until 1986 and the arrival of head coach Larry Brown, along with prize recruit Danny Manning, to get them back. A semi-final loss to Duke ended those dreams, but Brown and Manning returned for a last hurrah together in 1988. That year saw the Jayhawks start as a #6 seed, benefit from an upset-laden Midwest bracket, as they avoided the 1,2,3 seeds that season. Then the Final Four was in Kansas City where the team know to history as “Danny And the Miracles” beat top seeds Arizona and Oklahoma on a home-neutral court.
Roy Williams took over and made Final Four appearances, all of which can be read about in Memories Of March Madness. He reached in 1991, 1993, 2002 and 2003. The bookends of those appearances saw him make it to Monday night, though he fell short each time and then bolted for North Carolina. Kansas made it back in 2008 under Bill Self, winning a national title by taking out Williams and the Tar Heels on Saturday and then winning a stunning Monday night game against Memphis when they rallied from nine down with two minutes left, forced overtime on a three-point shot by current Miami Heat guard Mario Challmes and then won the championship. The 2008 Final Four was in New Orleans. Kansas is back. And the man who coached Memphis four years ago, John Calipari, is back as well, possibility with another showdown against Kansas looming.