It won't be long until Kentucky and Kansas tip off in the Phog.
To get ready for the big game, we had a Q&A session with David Potter at Rock Chalk Talk to discuss the Jayhawks, their recent struggles and how they see this game playing out.
1. What's been up with Kansas this season? Why did they look so good early on before struggling recently?
DP: There's no simple answer to this question, but it mostly boils down to the offense. Early in the year, Kansas was getting to the paint with ease and generating good looks from three point range, and the result was a deadly offensive attack that was putting up huge numbers.
In recent weeks, the players aren't moving the ball nearly as well, drives to the hoop are resulting in low-percentage circus layups, and the threes just aren't falling at quite the same rate.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why this suddenly became a problem, but it would seem to start with Frank Mason. Mason had a fantastic season in 2014-15, and had a strong start to this year's campaign. However, he hasn't looked the same for a couple of weeks, leading to some speculation that he may be banged up, or that he's hit a wall due to the number of minutes he's been asked to play.
Whatever the reason, his shooting numbers have dropped drastically while his turnovers have increased, and the result has been a far less effective offense.
2. Who has been the go-to guy for KU and the one UK must focus on to win this game?
DP: You'll get different answers from different people on this one. I'd say Frank Mason is as close as there is to a "go-to guy," just because he's who the team tends to lean on when they need a bucket, largely due to his ability to get the rim almost at will.
However, you could make a strong argument for Perry Ellis, who seems to be regaining the form he was in before his knee injury late last year. Length and aggressive shot-blockers can still bother Ellis, but he has a great skill set, able to knock down threes, post up and score with a baby hook, or start at the perimeter and beat his man to the basket.
Earlier this year Wayne Selden might have been in this conversation as well, as he was virtually unstoppable in November and December, but he's cooled off recently and hasn't been asserting himself as much.
3. Both teams have great backcourts, so talk about the Jayhawks guards/wings and how you think they'll matchup with UK.
DP: If we're talking about the backcourt that Jayhawk fans have watched in the last six or so games, I'd say there are some concerns. Kentucky's backcourt is strong defensively, while Kansas' has had a very hard time finding their offensive rhythm.
While that's worrisome, we've seen that Mason, Graham and Selden are capable of going off at any time, and Brannen Greene is an absolutely deadly shooter off the bench, so if Kansas can get things working early and establish a flow, very few backcourts in the country are going to be able to stop them. Whether that will happen is very much up in the air.
Defensively, Frank Mason is a good, physical defender who can wear down opposing point guards without picking up many fouls. Devonte Graham has had some trouble staying in front of his man recently, but has good instincts and a knack for disrupting passing lanes. Selden is generally a good on-ball defender, but isn't quite quick enough to totally lock down athletic wing players.
Perimeter defense isn't exactly a weakness for Kansas, but it's not the strong suit it typically has been under Bill Self. Ulis and Murray will get some chances to score, but they'll need to take advantage of them.
4. What is the biggest strength of this KU team, and in turn, what it their biggest weakness?
DP: The team's biggest strength is their shooting. The offense has been in a lull recently, but Kansas has a number of guys with great shooting touch. Brannen Greene is at 54% this year from beyond the arc, while Mason, Selden, Ellis and Graham are all between 39% and 46%.
Combined, they're the 6th best 3 point shooting team in the country, and that's despite Sviatoslav Mykailyuk having a very hard time. All of these players are very capable of hitting a mid-range jumper as well, as is freshman big man Carlton Bragg.
The biggest weakness is probably team defense. Every starting guard is capable of playing solid on-ball defense, but too many players are getting loose and finding either a path to the rim or a wide open jumper. It doesn't help that Brannen Greene has always been a defensive liability.
Down low, defense has never been Perry Ellis' strong suit, and you never know who's going to be playing next to him.
Freshmen Carlton Bragg and Cheick Diallo have had a very tough time learning to defend at the college level. Hunter Mickelson offers rim protection but holes in his game have left him relegated to the bench. Jamari Traylor is athletic enough to defend out to the three-point line and can block some shots, but his offensive deficiencies keep him from playing a ton of minutes.
Overall, the team isn't bad defensively, but it hasn't been anywhere near what we've come to expect under Self.
5. What's your prediction for the game?
DP: Kansas' recent run of form definitely has me concerned, and if the game were in Lexington I don't think there's any way I'd pick them right now.
However, Allen Fieldhouse will be absolutely rocking, and I have a feeling that this team, which has looked sluggish recently, will come out fired up. Kentucky has been playing better and I don't see a blowout on the horizon, but I think home court advantage and a chance to put their recent play behind them in the national spotlight will be enough to give Kansas the win.
I'll say Kansas 74, Kentucky 67