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.