By Rich Ruben
Long time power Kansas stands in the way of USC advancing to next weekend’s Sweet 16. Monday’s game against the Jayhawks presents a considerable challenge and a big opportunity. The Trojans remain a one point favorite over third seed KU, which may be explained in part due to the uncertainty over whether KU’s leading rebounder, Jalen Wilson, will be cleared to play after a Covid quarantine and how effective he can be.
This KU team is not as strong as many Jayhawk teams over the years and lacks the usual star power. Point guard Devan Dotson and big forward Udoka Azubuike are gone from last season’s team. KU had won 14 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles until the streak was broken in 2019. The Jayhawks finished 12-6 that year in conference play, two games behind Kansas State and Texas Tech.
The Jayhawks bounced back last year behind Dotson and Azubuike and won the regular season title at 17-1. This year was a big drop off; Baylor won the title and the Jayhawks finished second at 12-6, followed closely by Texas and West Virginia at 11-6.
This season KU is currently 21-8, but the Jayhawks are only 5-6 away from home. The Trojans are 23-7 and 10-5 away from Galen. Coach Bill Self’s teams score a lot of points and this year averaged 73 ppg and 38 rpg. The Jayhawks shooting is a bit lower than usual; they have made 44% of their shots, 34% from three and 71% from the line. They play aggressive defense, look for steals and fast breaks and take care of the ball.
Through Saturday’s games the Trojans are ranked 8th in the Ken Pom computer rankings and KU is 18th. The Trojans rank 40th in offensive efficiency and KU 91st thru Saturday’s games. USC is 29th in defensive efficiency and the Jayhawks are 50th.
Which Was The Bigger Surprise
There were two very good and unusual statistics in the win over Drake. It’s a tough call which was more surprising. Tahj Eaddy had 10 assists, double his previous season high. Isaiah Mobley made his first six shots from the floor including a three and finished 6-7, missing a late three point attempt, and he also was 2-2 from the line
Which was more surprising? I’d say “both”, and hope they can both duplicate their performances against KU.
A Deep Look At The Jayhawks
KU’s best big man, David McCormack, played Saturday after his quarantine period and KU needed him. He is a 6’10”, 265 pound junior forward. He was the second leading scorer and rebounder this season averaging 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds and also averages a block per game. McCormack made 51% of his shots and 80% from the line this season. He also made his one three point attempt.
The leading scorer is 6’5” junior guard Ochai Agbaji who averaged 14.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 turnovers. Agbaji made 47% of his shots, a team leading 38% from three and 69% from the line. He can get hot from outside and a key for USC is to deny him open looks.
6’8”, 215 pound freshman forward Jalen Wilson’s availability for Monday’s game has been listed as “likely” by KU. He is scheduled to complete his quarantine period on Sunday. Wilson averages 12.1 points and a team leading 8.2 rebounds. He makes 42% of his shots, 33% from three, and 62% from the line and has been projected to be a future first round draft pick.
Marcus Garrett is a steady 6’5” senior guard. He averages 10.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.0 turnovers. Garrett’s shooting stats are 46%, 33% and 80%.
6’6” sophomore guard Christian Braun averages 10.8 points, 5.2 boards, 2 assists, and 1.3 turnovers. He has made 38% of his shots, 34% from three and 81% from the line.
It seems like Mitch Lightfoot has played at Kansas for a decade. The 6’8’ forward is finally a senior and averages 3.4 points and 2.5 boards; he made 59% of his shots, 2-8 from three, and 58% from the line.
Freshman guard Bryce Thompson is 6’5” and averaged 4.8 points. He did not shoot the ball well, making only 37% of his shots, 24% from three and 64% from the line.
Tristan Enaruna will still be in his quarantine period and not available until next weekend at the earliest. He played 10 minutes a game as a key rotation player but averaged only 2.8 points.
Kansas Played Better Over The Last Dozen Games
After struggling in January KU played much better down the stretch. In their last dozen games before the Tournament they had three good wins, beating Oklahoma State at home by 12, getting a huge win aver Baylor at home by 13, and beating Oklahoma by 7 in Kansas City in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament before withdrawing with Covid issues.
In the same stretch they lost to Tennessee on the road by 19, lost to West Virginia by 12 on the road and lost to Texas on the road by 3. The other wins over this stretch were against the bottom teams in the conference and UTEP.
The last stretch was enough to advance Kansas from unranked to 12th in the final AP poll last week. In part the big jump was based on KU’s basketball history.
Kansas’ First Round Win Over Eastern Washington
The Jayhawks trailed most of the game before pulling away in the last minutes for a 93-84 win. Getting McCormack back was a big factor. He scored 22 points though he struggled against EWU on defense. The brother combination of Tanner and Jacob Groves both had career highs and they totaled 58 points between them.
The Jayhawks took 13 more shots as a result of EWU turnovers and ten KU offensive rebounds. The Jayhawks made 34-71 (48%) of their shots and 12-30 from three, and had 20 assists on their 34 baskets. They also made 13-16 from the line and totaled 7 steals, 7 blocks and only 6 turnovers.
Eastern Washington also shot the ball very well. EWU made 50% of their shots, 29-58, and 10-26 (38%) from three.
The pluses for KU they shot the ball well, limited turnovers, shared the ball and got second chances with offensive rebounds. Conversely Self must be concerned about their poor defensive performance, especially inside, and how they will defend the taller Trojans.
And The Outcome Will Be
USC can win this game. The Trojans will likely need Evan and Tahj to score and Isaiah Mobley and Drew to have good games. Neither team has had success from the line over the course of the season but the Trojans can’t allow KU a big margin from the line. USC will get to the line and must do better than Saturday night. They will also need to rebound well and outplay McCormack and Wilson inside on both ends. In other words the Trojan team will need a good all around effort to win.
USC is the bigger team inside and at the wings. Their challenge will be to control McCormack’s big body like they did with Drake’s big man. Self will have a plan to deny Evan the ball and easy shots but the seven foot freshman is playing much more aggressively on offense in the last few weeks. If older brother Isaiah can score it will increase KU’s defensive problems. Good outside shooting will make it harder for the Jayhawk guards to sag inside against the Mobleys.
A close game is expected but I think either team can win by double figures if they shoot the ball well and shut down the opposition. USC is the better defensive team and will switch between a man and zone defense depending on how the KU offense is playing. I think the Trojan defense will be the difference. Let’s go to the sweet 16!