If the basketball gods widen that rim, the Jayhawks have a chance
Twenty teams in the NCAA tournament this year shot worse than 25 percent from the perimeter. Fourteen of those teams lost in the first round. Five others lost in the second round. The one remaining team, which has made 24.1 percent of its 3-pointers, is somehow playing in the national championship game on Monday night.
Forget that these Jayhawks only returned one starter. Forget that they’ve trailed in the second half of every tourney game but the first and found a way to win. Yes, those are remarkable things and great narratives, but what’s truly remarkable about these Jayhawks is the fact that this team is winning despite shooting the basketball like a medicine ball.
Tyshawn Taylor has missed all 20 of his 3-point attempts in five games; he’s missed all 20 attempts in a dome in his career; he has not made a 3-pointer since March 9, and he’s starting to believe all that really doesn’t matter.
“We’ve shown we can win without me hitting threes,” Taylor said.
Taylor is right, but the Jayhawks aren’t winning Monday night without someone stepping up to hit some perimeter shots.
There’s a reason for that; its name is Anthony Davis.
Enter the ‘Brow-zone with caution
The Jayhawks did not shy away from attacking the paint in what was their second game of the season against Kentucky, but they probably should have used better discretion. Kentucky blocked 13 shots that day (22 percent of KU’s attempts) and Kansas shot 33.3 percent (14 of 42) in the lane.
It wasn’t all failure, because although Taylor made only 3 of 13 shots, he repeatedly drove to the basket and got fouled, making 15 of 17 free throws. That was what KU’s offense became once Kentucky jumped out to a double-digit lead in the second half.
The Jayhawks struggled to put more than two passes together without one of their nervous guards fumbling it away. Travis Releford had five turnovers, Elijah Johnson had one, Naadir Tharpe had two and Conner Teahan had two. Surprisingly, Taylor did not have one turnover.
“Ty had been there before,” Johnson said. “That was my first big game on center stage, and it happened so fast, I didn’t really know what was going on. We weren’t playing as a team. I felt like we were out there playing rec ball, so I was definitely uncomfortable.”
Taylor sensed the nerves of his teammates, and he took the responsibility to get them to the buzzer without it getting too ugly.
“My whole thing in that game was we need something,” Taylor said. “So I just put my head down and I went.”
At that point in the year, the Jayhawks were simply a collection of green talent. Johnson, Releford, Withey and Teahan might as well have been freshmen based on their experience level. They’ve gotten to the title game because Johnson figured out his role and is no longer afraid of the stage; Releford knows when to pick his spots and no longer fumbles every pass; Teahan hits the occasional big shot and eats up minutes; and Withey is the best defender in the country at turning defense into offense.
“We’re a completely different team,” Withey said.
The Jayhawks have not shot the ball well for most the tournament, but it’s not because they’ve run bad offense like they did against Kentucky.
“You’ve got to understand that you’ve got to work the ball if you don’t get a quick shot,” Taylor said. “If you don’t score early, you’ve got to work the ball. I think in that first game, that’s something that we didn’t understand. We were taking the first shot, not the first best shot.”
“The first time we played Kentucky, I allowed them to do their best to me emotionally and physically. I played a horrible game. The biggest part of why we lost that game is because I was kind of selfish and tried to do everything by myself. I can’t that happen this game. In fact, I won’t let that happen this game.” –Thomas Robinson
Robinson should be an expert on how to attack Kentucky. He told me before the North Carolina game that he was going to watch the tape of Kentucky to figure out the best way for him to attack length. He said on Sunday that he knows how Kentucky trapped him and what he did wrong.
It took a couple months but Robinson eventually figured out the best way for him to be effective was to not attack two. Kentucky was the first team that brought a double team every time he touched it, and Robinson, as he said, tried to do everything himself and still score.
When the Jayhawks started playing really well this season, Robinson finally started listening to Self and passing out of double teams. It took an embarrassing loss to Davidson for that to happen.
Kentucky will likely double Robinson again on Monday. Actually, Kentucky will definitely double team Robinson on Monday. If they don’t the way Kansas has been shooting the ball, John Calipari deserves to never win a national championship.
Robinson has to ignore KU’s shooting numbers from the perimeter and be a willing passer. The Jayhawks will have to capitalize in a couple ways. If the double is coming from big to big, which is what they did a lot the first go around, Withey will need to get some easy buckets. If it’s a guard that’s bringing the double team or a Kansas guard is left open because a UK guard drops down to help on Withey, which is the more likely UK approach, the open guard needs to either make open shots or attack Kentucky’s rotating defense.
What makes the Wildcats so good defensively is they rotate quickly and Davis can make up ground in no time. So if you’re driving, you better drive hard and fast. That’s why the Jayhawks need to make open 3-pointers. If they don’t, they better get Robinson the ball really deep in the post or he’s not going to have many chances to score.
Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague’s immaturity was the one reason I thought Kentucky might not win the title this year when I watched UK early on. Teague didn’t really know when to attack and when to facilitate. He took dumb shots and made some dumb turnovers — he had six against KU.
Teague has progressed more than any player on the Kentucky roster and plays with much more calm than I ever thought he was capable of. He also is a capable shooter most of the time.
Teague still has his moments, however. He went 0 for 7 in the SEC title game loss to Vanderbilt, and when Louisville was making its comeback in the second half on Saturday by pressing, Teague made a couple bad passes and had four turnovers.
Taylor said the best way to attack Kentucky is early in transition. Well, Kansas is going to have a tough time getting in transition without forcing some giveaways. The KU defense is not exactly set up to force a lot of turnovers. The Jayhawks don’t allow open shots or allow an offense to get the shots it wants. But in order to get out in transition, Taylor is going to have to pressure Teague and try to force him into making bad passes. He also needs to gamble a few times and go for some steals.
It will not be as easy as it was in December to get under Teague’s skin, but if the freshman point guard gets off to a bad start on the big stage, maybe he could crumble under the pressure. It also wouldn’t be unlike Calipari to have a short leash in such a big game.
Force Davis out
Calipari said that Davis has not demanded more touches once this season until Saturday. Davis’ jump hook was falling and he thought he could score every time he got it in the post. Davis was right. His jump hook over his left shoulder was automatic against Louisville.
Withey, who will guard Davis, has played incredible defense in the tournament, especially the last three halves. He took North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller out of the game in the second half of the Elite Eight and then frustrated Jared Sullinger with his length on Saturday.
Zeller had success early on against the Jayhawks because he was catching the ball in deep and his jump hook within five feet is also automatic. Sullinger struggled because he does not have much lift and he could not get up enough to get a decent look over Withey. He tried to go through Withey, and Withey held his ground.
Withey was able to slow Zeller by not letting him get his touches in close, forcing him to get his touches farther from the block. That’s what he will have to do against Davis, who has plenty of lift and length to get a hook over Withey.
If Withey can keep Davis from getting those good touches, he should be able to check him one-on-one and allow KU’s other defenders to play straight up. If they can do that, they’ll have a better shot of forcing the Wildcats to take tough shots.
“It needs to be a game where they’re not totally in rhythm,” Self said. “When they are, like that Iowa State game when they got on that roll in the second half, that’s as good as I’ve seen a team play all year long, and we can’t allow that to happen.”
Rick Pitino said Saturday night that the only way to beat Kentucky was to play your A-plus game and hope Kentucky plays its B game.
That makes sense, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily true with Kansas. First of all, the Jayhawks’ defense doesn’t allow any team to play its A game, and they’ve won playing their C game offensively.
Obviously, it’s going to take a better performance offensively to get past Kentucky; I just don’t think it’ll need to be a perfect performance. Where the Jayhawks will need to be close to perfect is in taking care of the ball. They cannot have turnovers that lead to Kentucky fast-break points. The Wildcats thrive on those highlight dunks and lobs. But if they have to attack KU in the halfcourt, they’ll have to earn every bucket.
I’m on the record picking Kentucky because I think both teams are incredibly difficult to score on inside the 3-point line, and the Cats are making 42.9 percent of their threes in the tourney, compared to 24.1 percent for the Jayhawks.
If Taylor somehow breaks out of his slump (“I think the basketball gods are with me tomorrow,” he said. “I got to make one. I can’t leave like this.”) and Johnson continues making big shots like he has all tournament, then yeah, I believe the Jayhawks have a legitimate shot.
And if the game is within one or two possessions in the final minutes, remember this: Kansas has outscored Purdue, North Carolina and Ohio State 34-12 in the final four minutes of those three games. Against Purdue and OSU, Kansas trailed at that point, and against UNC, KU was ahead by two.
Do I believe it’s going to happen? I’m saying there’s a chance.