Friday night the Jayhawks take on an ACC opponent that is playing at a very high level right now. That opponent is the NC State Wolfpack. Mark Gottfried's team is coming off two upset wins this past weekend, the first against San Diego State and the second against a familiar Kansas opponent, Georgetown.
Now NC State will pack up and head to St. Louis where the Jayhawks will be waiting and at this point in the tournament it becomes absurd to look past anyone. NC State is no different. On the perimeter this team is long and athletic, but this game might start with an emphasis on the interior for Kansas as NC State has two players underneath that are more than capable of giving the Jayhawks trouble.
CJ Leslie is a former five star recruit that joined the Wolfpack two seasons ago. Now a sophomore, the 6'8" big man is leading NC State in scoring and blocks. Leslie isn't a huge player from a size standpoint, but he can and will compete with the Kansas bigs because of his athleticism. Leslie has been big for the Wolfpack all year long and seems to have turned a pretty important corner in his playing career under new head coach Mark Gottfried.
Alongside Leslie is junior Richard Howell. Like Leslie, Howell checks in at 6'8" but he leads the team in rebounding and has produced at his highest level offensively this year averaging just over double figures. Howell made much of that improvement by working on his agility which included losing 25 pounds during the offseason. Howell isn't as explosive as Leslie offensively, but he is a stronger player physically underneath.
Each player has been a key at some point to both early round upsets for the Wolfpack and both players will be key points of emphasis for Kansas. The reasoning is twofold and it's not just because they are capable and need attention. In the ideal scenario Kansas could also potentially exploit both players with the big men that the Jayhawks will send out on the floor.
For Howell, the games where he has struggled most are the games where he faces a quality interior big. Especially one that has a decisive size advantage. Withey and Robinson will both have size on Howell. That's not to say he won't step up, but it is something that Kansas can look at and potentially feel confident in finding the right formula for managing.
On Leslie's side of things it hasn't been matchups that have necessarily bothered him, more often than not the knock has been his energy. But if you take the first two rounds and his most recent play as an indicator, that doesn't appear to be as much of an issue at the moment.
Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey will have opportunities in this game. NC State doesn't seem as likely to triple down like Purdue did as they can and should have more confidence in their length and athleticism underneath. NC State also wouldn't appear to present the matchup problems of a four guard style offense. Now it boils down to what Kansas as a team and more specifically the Jayhawk big men do with those opportunities on Friday.