The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the Midwest Regional champions: the Kansas Jayhawks. Let’s do this!
This Kansas offense can be described in one word: deadly. These Jayhawks were expected to take a step back after losing reigning Wooden Award winner Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas. However, Bill Self proved to the world, once again, that he is a Hall of Fame head coach with the development of Devonte’ Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and countless others.
The offense starts with Graham, a Wooden Award finalist. Graham’s development has been nothing short of incredible this season. Graham entered Kansas as a fringe Division I recruit. He slowly grew into a reliable 3-point shooter, and now he is Self’s top all-around player. Graham has averaged 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game this season.
The tournament has been a different story for Graham though. Aside from his explosion against Penn with 29 points, six rebounds and six assists, Graham has struggled to score consistently. He has averaged 11.7 points per game on 31 percent shooting, excluding his performance against Penn. But Graham has found other ways to be effective as he has averaged over 6.3 assists per game in the tournament and has made big plays late in games.
The best player for Kansas this tournament has unquestionably been Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman. Newman has developed into Self’s secondary playmaker on offense and his most reliable 3-point shooter. Newman’s ability to rise to the occasion in big moments cannot be overstated as he scored all 13 of Kansas’ points in overtime in their 85-81 win over Duke.
Newman is shooting 44.8 percent from three in the tournament and is averaging 21.8 points per game. His ability hit threes from NBA range and create his own shot off of the dribble results in the ultimate nightmare for the defender that draws him.
After only playing three minutes against Penn, Udoka Azubuike has returned to form after spraining his left MCL before the Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike was the key to Kansas’ win over an underrated Seton Hall team in the Round of 32 as he went toe-to-toe with Angel Delgado. Azubuike’s 7-foot, 280-pound frame helps Kansas control the paint on offense. He is a fantastic finisher in the paint and especially adept at snagging lobs from Graham over the top of the defense.
As a whole, Kansas plays its offense similarly to Villanova. They usually roll out four guards and a center and decimate teams from behind the arc. Three of Self’s four starting guards shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range. Kansas has the ability to shoot most teams out of the game within a span of minutes if they get hot.
However, Kansas is at their most dangerous when they get out on the break. Graham has fantastic court vision and Kansas’ wings and bigs run the floor very well. Not only that, but when Kansas pushes the pace, their shooters tend to widen the court. What this means is that Newman, Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick will sprint out to the opposing corner to await a pass from Graham to either shoot a three or attack the rim. Kansas also loves throwing fast break lobs to either Azubuike or Silvio De Sousa.
However, Kansas can find itself in trouble if or when Azubuike gets into foul trouble. Azubuike has had difficulty staying on the court throughout the season as he seems to always find ways to pick up fouls early in the contest. While De Sousa has proven himself a more than capable reserve, Kansas is a much better team with Azubuike on the court.
Kansas is by far the worst defensive team in San Antonio, and that could be problematic as they face Villanova, the nation’s top offense. The Jayhawks are ranked 40th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
Kansas tends to stick with their traditional man-to-man defense against most teams. While this group can play at elite levels from time to time, the Jayhawks are prone to falling asleep on defense, especially if they have a lead. Whether it is lazy closeouts or a lack of communication on ball screens, Kansas lacks the full 40 minutes of intensity that is required of a top-notch defense.
Regardless, Bill Self is a mastermind at wiggling Kansas out of supposed defensive disadvantages. Look at their matchup against Duke in the Elite Eight. Kansas faced a monumental size disadvantage going up against Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Self tasked Mykhailiuk with guarding Bagley (who is three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier) and doubled their bigs off of Trevon Duval, who struggles from the outside. This strategy resulted in Duval having a big game, but Mykhailiuk held Bagley to his worst performance of the tournament and Newman completely shut down Grayson Allen.
Self will have his work cut out for him against Villanova though. Omari Spellman is much more versatile than Azubuike or De Sousa as both of these players are limited from the outside. Both figure to struggle staying with Spellman on the perimeter, which is critical as Spellman shoots 44.6 percent from three.
Self should avoid daring Spellman to beat them from the outside, just ask West Virginia what he is capable of doing. Self’s strategy of doubling off of another player may not work either as all of Villanova’s main rotational players are capable of knocking down outside shots consistently. Based on his recent performance, the most likely candidate would be Phil Booth, but Booth has the potential to light it up from the outside at any time.
Self will need to get creative with his defensive scheming to slow down the versatile Wildcats. Whether this means sitting back in a hybrid zone that is predicated on guarding the 3-point line or trapping at the mid-court line, Kansas will have its work cut out for them.
Udoka Azubuike’s fouling: As stated above, Azubuike is a game changer for Kansas. That is, when he is on the court.
In both games that Azubuike played without minute restrictions (Clemson and Duke), he was limited to 25 and 19 minutes respectively due to foul trouble. It is worth noting that Azubuike fouled out of both games. Despite only playing 25 minutes against Clemson, he recorded a double-double, grabbing 11 rebounds and scoring 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting.
There is not a single player that matches up to Azubuike’s physicality remaining in the Final Four. If Azubuike can find a way to stay on the court for over 25 minutes, he will provide Kansas with a serious edge in rebounding and scoring in the paint.
Silvio De Sousa: De Sousa played his first game of the season on Jan. 13. He struggled to find his role until the Big 12 Tournament, where he filled in for the injured Azubuike serviceably. De Sousa’s sound play continued in the NCAA Tournament. He played 26 big minutes against Duke and grabbed 10 rebounds.
If Azubuike gets into early foul trouble, Self will most likely call upon De Sousa to step up and play significant minutes in San Antonio. He will be relied upon to hold his own and control the glass.
This was the Kansas team that was not supposed to reach the Final Four. However, Bill Self showed the world how great of a coach he truly is. The Jayhawks have the offensive firepower to outgun any of the remaining opponents outside of Villanova. The key for Kansas will be how they adjust to Villanova’s ultra-versatile lineup with Azubuike or De Sousa on the floor. If Kansas can slip by Villanova, they should be favored to cut down the nets in San Antonio.
Featured image by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
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