Here we go.
Kansas represents Kentucky's third Big 12 opponent in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats took care of the Big 12's third and fourth best teams, Baylor and Iowa State, in the Elite 8 and round of 32, respectively. Kentucky also missed playing the Big 12's second best team, Missouri, which as the West two-seed, lost in the round of 64. Had the Tigers won its pod, Kentucky would have played them instead of Louisville.
But it's not those schools that Kentucky is playing tonight; it's Kansas. As the other Big 12 schools are painfully aware, to be the best, you have to beat the best. In the Big 12, that's the Kansas Jayhawks. Kansas has won eight straight Big 12 regular season titles, and five of the last eight tournament titles. Yeah, Self has turned the Jayhawks into a regular season buzzsaw.
The Self-led Jayhawks haven't fared nearly as well in the NCAA Tournament. This is Self's second Final Four appearance with Kansas. The Jayhawks won the tournament in 2008, but have suffered ignominious defeats to lesser seeds in other years.
This year, they've been stout. It's not close to Self's most talented team, but it's a dang good one. In a top-heavy Big 12, the Jayhawks were good enough to top an experienced-laden Missouri squad and a sickly talented Baylor one. And if that 13-point comeback against Ohio St. didn't impress you, well, I don't know what will.
After the jump, some quick thoughts on the Kansas players:
- You know about Thomas Robinson. He's the best player in the country not named Anthony Davis. Robinson relies primarily on brute strength, and Kentucky likely won't stop him from recording a double-double tonight. He's one of the best rebounders in the country; his 30.3% D-Reb% is tops in the nation. He can hit the open 12-foot jumper with ease, and I'd rather defend him in the post just off the block. Robinson is not overly skilled and he's just slightly undersized as an NBA four. The problem for Kentucky is the Wildcats don't have a true shadow for Robinson (a guy like Jarnell Stokes would have come in handy). Terrence Jones will get first crack, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may buy some minutes as well. My game plan: force Robinson outside his comfort zone (next to the basket, elbow jumpers) and make him earn his points and rebounds. Inefficiency is a victory, in my opinion.
- Watching Ohio St.-Kansas, I actually favored the Buckeyes as Kentucky's easier opponent, despite Ohio St.'s superior statistical profile. That's because Ohio St. simply doesn't have the starting frontcourt to match up against Kentucky's elite athletes, whereas Kansas does. After two years of doing nothing, true center Jeff Withey has put together an eye-opening junior season. There will be a lot of fawning over Kansas and Kentucky's block parties. We know about Anthony Davis, but it's actually Withey who leads the nation in block%, at 15.4%. His solid season started in KU's game against Kentucky, where Withey surprisingly put up 7 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks in a losing effort. I imagine that Self will take a page from Rick Pitino's playbook, using Withey to screen off and frustrate Davis on dribble-drives and offensive rebound opportunities. Davis needs to stay out of foul trouble against Withey, who is adept at getting to the line (76.4% FT Rate), then hitting his freebies (79.4% FT%). Call it the Cody Zeller corollary.
- Backing up both positions is Kevin Young, who has taken over the minutes from little-used Justin Wesley. Young is a high-energy player that will attack the boards, but doesn't have much of an offensive game. If Kentucky can live with Kyle Wiltjer on defense (Calipari may opt to put Wiltjer on Withey, like he did with Gorgui Dieng), Wiltjer should be able to exploit either Robinson or Young on the offensive end.
- If there's one matchup that scares the heck out of both teams, it's at point guard. Tyshawn Taylor is as enigmatic as they come. Against Ohio St., his last minute steal and subsequent throwaway perfectly encompassed his Kansas career. Taylor is shooting 37.7% from distance but is 0 for the tournament. Matching up against pesky Aaron Craft, Taylor notched 9 assists...and 5 turnovers. If Kentucky fans have pulled out a few hairs watching Marquis Teague, Kansas fans are practically bald. In my opinion, Kentucky simply has to hold serve here. Teague needs to manage the game well against Taylor, limiting turnovers and bad decisions. Conversely, Teague needs to prevent Taylor from getting hot, and just wait for his bad decisions to arise.
- Where Kentucky has a clear advantage is at the wings. Starters Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson are both stout defenders with well-rounded games, but neither scares me as more than "just a guy". Backup Conner Teahan is a one trick-pony: he's there to shoot, and doesn't do it particularly well (33.8% 3-FG%). Back to the starters: Releford is more the slasher, whereas Johnson is the shooter/distributor (look for Johnson to get first crack at starting PG going into next year). Kidd-Gilchrist and Darius Miller should cause all sorts of matchup nightmares against Releford, and Doron Lamb should be quick enough to get his shots off against Johnson. I think Miller and Lamb will get their chances to penetrate and create, fragmenting Kansas' interior defense to provide easy looks for Davis and Jones.
- Had Ohio St. been the opponent, I would have been concerned about the perimeter matchups. The experienced William Buford and talented Deshaun Thomas both could have gotten hot offensively, and Craft would most definitely have given Teague fits. Against Kansas, it's the frontcourt matchups that strike me as more problematic. Problematic, but winnable.
- Kansas wins if Taylor goes off for 30+ efficient points, and the Robinson/Withey frontcourt fluster Kentucky enough into foul trouble and/or ineffectiveness. I don't see either happening, at least not to the degree in which Kansas can pull off the upset. This is Kentucky's game to win. The Wildcats just need to make it happen.