Like I broken record, I'll say it: as the season goes on, the slimmer this section gets. As the numbers of games left in the season decreases, so does the sum of what can be said. Michigan is two large steps away from Atlanta; Kansas awaits first.
Outside of a rough week at the beginning of February (featuring three straight losses, including one to TCU), the Jayhawks have been lights out all season, with only two other losses to their name, an early season loss against Michigan State and a thumping at Baylor on March to close out the regular season schedule.
In the Big 12 tournament however, the Jayhawks cruised against Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State en route to yet another title. The KSU victory was particularly impressive, as it represented the always difficult third win against a single team in one season. KSU was the second best team in the conference, and the Jayhawks beat them by 21 in Lawrence and 16 in the conference tournament final. These guys hit their stride at the right time, if a team like Kansas, a 1-seed no less, can be described as doing such. Perhaps it is just me, but it seemed like Kansas flew under the radar a bit this season.
Anyway, Bill Self's squad handled its business against Western Kentucky in the opening round and then persevered through a rough first half against the Tar Heels to emerge with a 70-58 victory.
The Jayhawks are experienced, athletic and skilled. If Michigan does not bring something very nearly approaching its best effort, it will lose.
Kansas's roster should be common knowledge right now, but the two guys to keep an eye on are seven-footer Jeff Withey and freshman phenom Ben McLemore. The former has been the bane of slashers and drivers all season, swatting shots like a large animal swatting flies away like the inconsequential beings that they are. Those who chose to drive into the lane become those inconsequential beings.
Withey averages about four blocks per game, so Michigan fans and/or students might as well call him Greenwood, because it's a block party when he's out there.
McLemore, on the other hand, when not busy writing songs about going thrift shopping, is actually a very talented basketball player, not to mention just a little freshman. Michigan has had the fortune of having five freshmen ready to contribute at varying levels of significance, but none of Michigan's freshmen come close to McLemore. He leads the Jayhawks, averaging 15.8 ppg and 5.3 rpg while shooting 41% from beyond the arc on 166 attempts (the most on the team). If Michigan can run him off of the three-point line, things will be just fine.
Just kidding, because he shoots 55% from two and 87% from the line. He's basically a do-it-all cyborg.
Senior guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson pitch in approximately 12 and 10 ppg each, respectively. Releford is second on the team (behind Withey) in field goal percentage at 58%. Based on my viewing of Kansas basketball this season and in the tournament, Releford is a speedy, athletic type that can do some damage in the open floor. Kansas definitely has the athletes to push it, but it sort of depends on the flow of the game as to whether or not they will actively try to do so.
Johnson runs the point for Kansas and is dishing out 4.7 assists per game to 3.1 turnovers per, which is not necessarily tremendous. He's also a speedy guy who can get to the basket with some explosiveness, but he's also shooting just 38% from the field and has been to the free throw line 76 times; for a basic comparison, Trey Burke has taken 146 free throws this season. So, if Johnson does get by his man, it seems like its generally not that bad of a thing when he does shoot it. Of course, with a guy like Withey down low, a perimeter blow by plus a defensive rotation could equal a number of little alley-oops to the big man (which would be somewhat reminiscent of the second half against Indiana in Bloomington way back when, when Zeller cashed in on some easy dunks when McGary helped on the drive).
Six foot eight inch senior forward Kevin Young rounds out the starting five, a yeoman type averaging 7.6 ppg and 6.7 ppg. I suspect that we'll see the lineup featuring Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary on the floor at the same time in order to combat both Young and Withey. I don't know that Young is really a traditional post-up threat, but I could very easily see Glenn Robinson III having trouble boxing him out down low. Jordan Morgan, please come back!
Freshman forward Perry Ellis and sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe are the team's only other meaningful contributors, meaning this is not a very deep team; of course, Michigan isn't really either, unless you're counting spot minutes from guys like Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht. On the other hand, Kansas is without a doubt far more experienced than Michigan, which, to be fair, is not exactly that difficult.
If Kansas gets in any sort of foul trouble, especially Withey, Michigan might be able to start cookin' soup, as Seth at Posting and Toasting says. Otherwise, if Withey manages to get a standard number of minutes, the Wolverines could find it very difficult to do much scoring in the half court on anything other than THJ/Burke/Stauskas "hold my beer" type threes.
- Pick and roll. It will never cease to amaze me how important the pick and roll has become to Michigan basketball under Beilein, but here we are. I remember including this point for my preview of the Purdue game at Mackey and A.J. Hammons picked up a foul defending a pick and roll about 30 seconds into the game, causing me to execute a little mental fist pump. The same applies here: get Withey out of the paint, make him move, and, in an ideal world, hope he picks up a silly foul hedging 25 feet away from the basket.
- Off to the races. In a similar vein, Michigan will find scoring in the half court difficult. How do you remedy this, you say? Well, it's simple: RUN FOR THE HILLS. And by "hills" I mean the basket. On Kansas misses, Burke needs to just go into Derrick Rose mode and push the action. Sure, Michigan is a "slow" Big Ten team, vis-a-vis both perception and possessions per 40, but a team led by Burke has the potential to be very fast at any time. In this game, "any time" should essentially be "any time it is possible to run."
- D up. Kansas has some other guys that can do some things, but McLemore is easily the Jayhawks' most talented player. Withey is terrifying because of his defensive ability, but he's not really someone who worries you offensively outside of his ability to put back miscellaneous Kobe assists. Releford is a good player but a seemingly ancillary piece, Young is an athletic forward but a standard garbage man type and Johnson is a speedster who seems to have trouble actually putting the ball through the cylinder. No, Tim Hardaway Jr. will likely never be a defensive stopper, let alone a significantly above average defensive player, but a solid performance tonight will go a long away toward assuring that one more Michigan basketball game will be played this season.
- The Jayhawks were 91st nationally in possessions per 40 (68.7 per).
- Kansas is 101st in offensive rebounding percentage and 71st in defensive rebound percentage.
- Self's squad has the tendency to turn it over a bit; they are 144th in turnover percentage at 20.4%. On a related note, PG Elijah Johnson is 294th in the country in turnover percentage at 26.6%. That is bad.
- Unfortunately, Withey has only fouled out once this season.
- McLemore was 3rd in the Big 12 and 42nd nationally in true shooting percentage (63.1%). This guy can play.
Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.
Well. Do I have to make one? I do? Okay then...if I must.
This game seems to be about as close to a coin flip/pick 'em/whatever that you can get. Everyone under the sun is rolling with Michigan, it seems, perhaps due to Michigan's tournament performance thus far and Kansas' pseudo-scare against UNC. Either way, I think Kansas is getting less respect than it probably deserves.
I do believe that Michigan can win this game. Kansas does have a shot-blocking machine in Withey, but whenever it comes time to do these previews and we start noting who can play on the other team, the obligatory counterpoint is "but Trey Burke." There can only be one Burke, and Michigan has him.
With that said, with Withey patrolling the paint, I'm getting a sinking feeling about Michigan's offense devolving into the Evil Beilein offense (i.e. ALL THE THREES). Unless Michigan can get Withey in foul trouble or D up enough to manufacture some fast break opportunities, I don't see any Wolverine, even Burke, having much success challenging Withey in the paint. Heck, it's going to be tough getting a little mid-range shot off if he's in the vicinity. Without Withey, this team would be significantly less scary, but they have him and that's that.
In short, I think it comes down to: a) Can Michigan get Withey off the floor and/or away from the basket? b) Can Michigan manufacture points in transition and c) Can Michigan, namely Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr., shoot well enough to keep Michigan in the game if the paint proves to be barred off by the Withey Wall?
Hardaway has been lights out thus far, but I have a feeling his hot streak will come to an end tonight. Also on the not so bright side, I just don't see Stauskas being much of a serious factor in this game, although I hope I am wrong on that front.
Can Trey Burke, once again, Superman Michigan to victory? Probably, but my gut is telling me no. This is the prediction I'm making now, as I finish this, and I'm sure it won't change 384 times between now and tip-off.
Michigan 64, Kansas 67.