Conference season kicks off with a home date vs. perhaps the school that will take Missouri's place as our chief rival after the season. Kansas State is off to a surprising 11-1 start that includes a very good win over Alabama, as well as a 17 point thrashing of Long Beach State.
The first two words that come to mind when looking at this game are rock fight. Both KU and Kansas State struggle on offense but have the potential to be stifling defensively. At 40.8% not many teams are better inside the arc defensively than the Wildcats, but one of them just so happens to be their opponent tonight: Kansas owns the 6th best two point defense in the country, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.8% inside the arc.
Kansas State's leading scorer is Rodney McGruder, averaging 12.3 ppg. McGruder has also done it rather efficiently, as the 6'4" Junior is shooting 54.5% from two. His three point shooting has fallen to just 31.3% this year (down from 40.8% last year), and though he is drawing more fouls, he is shooting just 65.6% from the line. Still, with his usage rate going up quite a bit from last season the fact that he has an eFG over 50% is impressive. Even more impressive has been McGruder's ability to create his own shot: He's taken a combined 59% of his shots either at the rim or jumpers from inside the arc. Of those shots, only a third of them have been on assists from his teammates. I would expect to see Travis Releford on him whenever possible (and hope to, if I am allowed to have an opinion on game strategy), and that matchup should be the one that decides the game.
For me offensively the big key will be whether Thomas Robinson is able to pass out of the double team. He's improved quite a bit over the course of the year, and his turnover rate is all the way down to 16.1%. The Wildcats don't have the big men they did a couple years ago, but Frank Martin can still throw four players 6'7" or taller at him if he chooses to stretch his bench a bit. However, given that two of them are 6'7" and two are lightly used 7 footers, the double team is going to have to come frequently, or else Robinson could have another field day.
The next key, then, will obviously be how well Kansas shoots from three. There is obviously more inherent randomness in how well a team shoots from three vs. from two, but you can bet that the team's most frequent three point shooters, Conner Teahan and Elijah Johnson, will have a lot of opportunities to shoot threes. Teahan takes 80% of his shots from behind the arc whereas Johnson takes two thirds of his attempts from deep, so expect them to take quite a few tonight as well. Kansas State defends the three well, but haven't really had to double the post much this year, so I expect Kansas to have more open looks than their other opponents so far. A hot night from either Teahan or EJ (or hell why not both?). Even better would be Tyshawn Taylor getting some open looks, with the Senior shooting over 50% from deep and being the rare Jayhawk (and player) who doesn't rely on catch and shoot abilities to shoot the three: 7% of his threes (which is more than it seems) have come without an assist.
Finally, I will be very interested to see how the non-KU guards play tomorrow: Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford played 31 minutes between them in the two meetings last year and with the type of pressure Frank Martin likes to apply on the perimeter in the half court offense it could cause the game to get out of hand early if they don't respond. Of course, if they can successfully enter the post against that pressure it could cause the game to get out of hand the other way.
I'm taking Kansas to win for one big reason: assuming Releford holds McGruder to even an average game (and I think he will), the Wildcats don't have enough scoring to keep up. They shoot just 34.8% from three, and take only 29.4% of their shots from deep. They're not terribly great from two either, but do get to the line a ton. Getting Thomas Robinson and Jeff WIthey into a lot of foul trouble (which, let's face it, is a total possibility) is probably their best route to winning the game, but they'll also have to shoot better than their season average of 65% from the line to do it.
KenPom predicts a 75-65 Kansas win. I think it will be closer than that, though if Kansas makes their free throws at the end the score could end up around there.