Allen Fieldhouse | Lawrence, KS | Tip: 3 PM CST | TV: CBS
Following their Monday night victory over the Baylor Bears, the Texas Longhorns can now breathe a little easier about their NCAA tournament hopes. They cracked the magical 20-win mark, have RPI and SOS numbers in the top 40, and have logged four wins against teams in the Top 30 of the RPI. But even with their ticket to the Big Dance practically punched, the Longhorns have a lot to play for this Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
Texas sits in a tie with Oklahoma State for fourth in the Big 12, which comes with the added benefit of a first-round bye in next week’s conference tournament in Oklahoma City. While the Longhorns hold a tiebreaker over the Cowboys, they do not hold the tiebreaker over Kansas State, a team which is only one game back in the standings and hosts the lowly Colorado Buffaloes this afternoon. With the Wildcats likely winning and Oklahoma State having to travel to Norman to face Oklahoma, the Longhorns must win today to seal that fourth first-round bye.
For Kansas, today is a chance to win the Big 12 title outright. Even if they lose and split the league title, the Jayhawks will earn the 1-seed in next week’s conference tourney. But for a program with such a proud and storied history, anything less than an outright title will feel tainted. So while the Longhorns have their own reasons for wanting an upset this afternoon, the role of spoiler is also calling their name.
Unfortunately, winning in Lawrence has been an unsolvable mystery for the Longhorns, who have been unsuccessful in their eight tries dating back to 1941. Allen Fieldhouse is just as tough for other visiting opponents, as the Jayhawks have won 40 straight contests at home and have only lost once in 38 home games against teams from the conference’s southern half.
By the numbers
Based simply on efficiency, the Jayhawks seem like a flawless team. Kansas is 9th-best in the country on the defensive end, holding opponents to just 0.883 points per possession, while they also dice teams up on the offensive end to the tune of 1.141 points per possession. That differential of nearly 0.30 points each trip down the court starts to add up quickly, and it’s led to a handful of blowouts for the Jayhawks this year.
That excellent efficiency on both ends of the ball is especially dangerous in Lawrence, where Kansas rides the crowd’s energy to punch visitors in the mouth and race out to huge early leads. Against Missouri and Kansas State, both solid teams who are bitter rivals of the Jayhawks, Kansas jumped out to 33-12 and 18-0 leads, respectively. If the Longhorns aren’t clicking early, they could be digging themselves out of a massive hole for the entire afternoon.
Statistically, the one anomaly for Kansas is their turnover margin. The Jayhawks are actually giving it up 0.8 times per game more than their opponents, and it’s been the Achilles heel for a team that oftentimes seems unbeatable. In the road loss against Missouri, KU coughed it up an inexcusable 27 times. Texas isn’t a team that forces an inordinate number of mistakes by their opponents, but they are a team that hangs on to the basketball. If the Horns can squeeze out a few extra possessions, it will only help their long odds this afternoon.
The starting five
After losing all five starters from last year’s national championship team, the Jayhawks were a huge question mark heading into the season. They boasted a recruiting class that was ranked in the top five according to Scout, but the lack of experience was a definite concern for those bleeding blue in the midwest. Fortunately, junior Sherron Collins and sophomore Cole Aldrich stepped up to the task, filling the leadership void and carrying the team to a sparkling 24-6 record to date.
Collins is the steady floor general, a wicked fast guard who can heat up in a hurry from outside. Even though he leads the team with over 18 points per game, he’s averaging nearly five assists as well. Collins’ long-range threat means that defenders can often get pump-faked before he blows by them, and the little guy knows how to finish at the rack. But perhaps more importantly, he loves to kick it out when the defense collapses down on him, and this team has its share of long-range gunners that can capitalize on the opportunities Collins opens up.
Brady Morningstar is one of those three-point threats, hitting over 41% of his attempts this season. He’s a redshirt sophomore who actually took his year off after his freshman season, and he’s a capable ball-handler who can take over for Collins in a pinch. Morningstar is the team’s best on-ball defender, and he’ll likely be tasked with getting in the face of A.J. Abrams all game long.
Big man Aldrich is the key to everything for the Jayhawks, but he’s coming into this one a bit gimpy after hurting his ankle in the waning minutes of Wednesday night’s loss to Texas Tech. Kansas loves to run an inside-out game built on Aldrich’s presence in the lane, and when he’s sitting on the bench with foul trouble or injury, the Jayhawks turn fairly one-dimensional. The center is the team’s second-leading scorer with 15 points per contest, so if that ankle flares up at all this afternoon, Texas could hang around long enough to have a shot in the final minutes.
Aldrich is also a hell of a rebounder and is averaging more than two blocks a game. Cole gets most of his blocks when he rotates over to help, so if the Texas guards can penetrate and draw him out of the lane, it could open things up for little dump-offs to Dexter Pittman, Gary Johnson, and Damion James.
Marcus Morris is the team’s lone starting forward, and one of two twin brothers from Philadelphia on the Jayhawk roster. Marcus is the more well-rounded of the two, and he is going to be an absolute star before he finishes his time at Kansas. He can isolate the defender and take him off the dribble, step out and hit the threes, or post up and kiss it off the glass. One knock on his game is a tendency to pick up dumb fouls, as he’s getting whistled about once every seven minutes. Fortunately, Coach Self has a few other solid options at forward, so he doesn’t need more than 18-20 minutes from this Morris.
Freshman Tyshawn Taylor is still a bit unpolished, but it’s clear that this kid will also be giving Big 12 opponents a bunch of headaches in the next few years. He’s only 6’3″, but his wingspan is deceptively long and he uses it to his advantage to get the shot off over taller defenders when he drives to the rim. Taylor also has a good jumper, can hit shots on the run, and penetrates with flashy speed. But he’s shown a problem with making sound decisions this year, and as a result he has more than his share of turnovers. Unfortunately, he’s also coming into this one a little banged up from the Tech game, where he injured his lower leg and headed to the locker room almost immediately.
Off the bench
Tyrel Reed is another three-point gunner for Kansas, hitting over 39% of his attempts from long range. Like Taylor and Morningstar, Reed is also enough of a ball handler to help out when Collins is off the court, but he’s not a true point guard. Taking Reed away from his natural position off the ball marginalizes his speciality, so Coach Self doesn’t waste many of his minutes by doing it.
Off the bench, Mario Little is an excellent sixth man for Coach Self and the ‘Hawks. He is a JuCo transfer that missed the first half of the season with injury, and many thought he was going to sit out the entire year and use a medical redshirt. But Little decided he wanted to help out his team immediately, and he saw his first action in conference play against Kansas State.
He’s a bit of a ‘tweener, as he can play as a big guard or a smaller forward and does both equally well. He has great outside range, can easily knock down the mid-range J, and loves to fight down low for rebounds and buckets. Despite only grabbing about 13 minutes per game, he’s averaging more than three rebounds, and is yet another player who is going to stand out in the near future.
Markieff Morris is more of a forward than his brother, and he has an even bigger problem picking up fouls. While Marcus is getting whistled once every seven minutes, Markieff is caught cheating once every five minutes. If he could learn to play better defense and stop picking up stupid fouls, Markieff Morris could earn more playing time and be a much bigger presence for the Jayhawks.
Travis Releford is a very big guard who has played in nearly every game this year, but doesn’t make a huge impact. He’s really good in the open court, but he’s not the greatest jump shooter and as a result, he struggles a bit more in the half-court. Releford can get to the rim, but he still needs some seasoning before he’s considered much of a threat.
Keys to the game
Mason and Balbay must penetrate – Both Texas guards showed that they weren’t afraid to attack the rim against Baylor on Monday night, but Mason has only rarely taken it to the rack this year. As mentioned above, Aldrich loves to rotate in help defense, so if the Texas guards can get him and the rest of the Jayhawks to play reactive defense, it should open up the post. In addition, any fouls the guards can draw on the big man will only help to turn Kansas into a team glued to the perimeter.
Play solid team defense – Kansas loves to spread out the floor, so their talented backcourt can easily expose flaws in the Texas man-to-man defense. The Longhorns are going to have to play smart D today, and work together to help on penetration without leaving the perimeter wide open. The Jayhawks can absolutely light it up from long range, so Texas simply cannot overpursue.
Shut down Collins – It seems fairly obvious to say that Texas must shut down the leading scorer for Kansas. But that’s exactly what Texas Tech did on Wednesday night, and the Jayhawks just could not get over the hump without his leadership. While you can’t really expect the Longhorns to hold Collins to an abysmal 3-of-19 like the Red Raiders did, it’s painfully obvious that the junior guard cannot score 20 points if Texas hopes to win.