Last year Kansas fought through four extremely tight games to make a run at the national title game, and it seemed that each game the Jayhawks came up with the play they needed to advance. This year the Jayhawks are seeded a slot higher, but with their penchant for volatile performances this season, it is apparent that the Jayhawks will need some things to go well in order to return to the promised land. Those things include:
1. Three Point Luck
The Jayhawks won't be facing a good three point shooting team until likely the Sweet 16, but if they face Michigan, they run into the second best three point shooting team in the Big 10; a team that shot 37.5% from three this year. They have three players shooting over 37%, led by Freshman Nik Stauskas who is shooting 44.9% from three.
If the team that shoots a ton of threes poses one threat, the team that doesn't shoot a lot (or doesn't shoot them well) forces another. Kansas fans all remember how backbreaking it was when Northern Iowa's Jordan Eglseder made two threes in the first half of their 2nd round game in 2010. Two threes which happened to be 66.6% of his season total. Those extra points not only can kill morale, but they are points the opponent wasn't counting on. If an opponent on the first weekend hits some threes they probably aren't supposed to, look out.
2. Point guard play
Point guard has been one of the Jayhawks' Achilles heels this year, but at least in the latter stages of the season it seems like whenever one has an off game, the other steps up. To wit, Elijah Johnson just polished off a stretch in which he was 10-19 from three and 35 assists compared to just 13 turnovers. But while he struggled in the Big 12 tournament, Naadir Tharpe was 5-8 from three and had 13 assists and just 4 turnovers. In fact, Tharpe has taken care of the ball pretty well all season long: he has a turnover rate of just 20.8% this season, which is right in line with the best point guards in the league.
They are certainly up and down though, and I don't think anyone would be surprised if they have poor games in the tournament. Kansas hasn't had to deal with both having a bad game at once too often though, and it's critical they keep it that way.
3. Offense from the four spot
The four has been the other recognized weakness this season. Iowa State sagged off Kevin Young quite a bit and it almost cost the Jayhawks a pair of conference wins, if not for the heroics of Ben McLemore and Elijah Johnson. But the emergence of Perry Ellis solved that problem against the Cyclones. Has it solved it for good? His season long numbers still don't look great, but Ellis had an 80.4% eFG in the Big 12 tournament. It's unsustainable, obviously, but he has also really come on as a rebounder as well, grabbing at least 6 boards in 5 of the last 7 games (and that is while playing over 25 minutes only once). Oh and he's also Kansas's best two point jump shooter on the season, making 43% of them.
That is not to minimize the contributions of Kevin Young though. He doesn't have the skill that Ellis does, but he is shooting 57% from two, is the team's best offensive rebounder and leads the team in both steal rate and (unofficially) hustle plays. For a team that struggles with energy sometimes, Young can turn games with his energy and enthusiasm.
4. Keeping Withey out of foul trouble
Jeff Withey is probably the biggest weapon in America. Not only is he the best shot blocker in the country (everyone with a block rate higher than him either plays in a horrible conference or doesn't play very often, or both) but Jayhawk opponents don't even try to get to the rim against Kansas, taking only 26% of their shots from that region. As a result they are forced into more long twos and threes, lowering their FG%.
Withey has done a good job of defending without fouling, committing just 2.6 per 40 minutes. But all it takes is one official who calls a couple touch fouls that shouldn't be fouls and Withey is on the bench. The Kansas defense is still good with Withey on the bench thanks to the emergence of Ellis and Jamari Traylor as post defenders, but it is merely above average. Kansas can't win the national title with an above average defense, it needs an exceptional one.
WIthey is also a big help on the offensive end. His hands aren't the best and he can sometimes look awkward down there, but the numbers speak for themselves: he has a 58% eFG, draws a ton of fouls, and has gotten his free throw percentage back up to 71%. After leading the team last year he ranks 6th this year, but having a big man whom you don't have to take off the floor in crunch time is a big bonus for a coach.
5. Making sure Travis Releford shoots
Travis Releford isn't a guy who is going to create his own shots; that much is sure. But what else is sure is that he is a tremendous shooter. He shoots 66% from two, 41% from three and 80% from the line. It all adds up to him having the 10th best eFG and 5th best true shooting percentage in the country.
But Releford doesn't always show off that talent: he has a shot% of just 15.5%, lowest on the team other than Traylor, and in KU's losses this year he took 6, 5, 1, 7 and 6 shots. Releford has more defensive responsibilities than anyone on the team other than Withey, and he shouldn't be forcing shots, but regardless of the flow of the offense he probably shouldn't be passing up open threes either.
He will have to shoulder a big load defensively as well obviously, but while Kansas has won a lot of games a lot of different ways, I don't think they've had to win when Releford has truly had a bad game. Let's hope we don't have to find out whether or not we can.