(note: per usual, all shot location stats are via hoop-math.com)
Cliff Alexander has gotten the bulk of this year's #free campaign, and it's not hard to see why. Alexander is shooting 52 percent on twos, is the best offensive and defensive rebounder on the team, and is drawing 6 fouls per 40 minutes (he also is shooting 72 percent from the line). Alexander has also been an effective interior defender, with a 7.9 percent block percentage.
However, he might not be the key to the Jayhawks. Could that be Hunter Mickelson?
We've gone into rim protection over and over on this site, so I won't rehash just how important it is, but it is important to know that rim protection is important for two reasons. First, obviously, if you have a good rim protector, team's who take the ball to the hoop are going to score much less efficiently (for example, Virginia is forcing teams to shoot 12% worse at the rim than Duke is) but just as importantly, and an often overlooked factor, a great rim protector (or rim protection in general) can force teams to think twice about going inside and challenging them, and opponents will take more two point jumpers than they usually do. Teams took just 26% of their shots at the rim against the 2012 Jayhawks, who had some guy named Jeff Withey, and while I won't go through it game by game, all you have to do is go back to last year when K State had a parade to the rim with Embiid out, and took more than their fair share of jumpers with Embiid in.
All that leads to this year. Kansas is 94th in opponents taking shots at the rim, and 59th in opponent FG% at the rim (52.2%, which is honestly better than I thought it was).
Meanwhile, Hunter Mickelson, he who hasn't played much, has a block percentage of 14.1 percent, which would be good for seventh nationally if he had enough minutes played to qualify. It's worth noting that Embiid had an 11.7 block percentage last year, and Withey was at 13.7 and 15.3 percent the years before that. Mickelson was at 13.5 percent as a Freshman, ranking 8th nationally, so it's not like he is only piling up numbers in garbage time.
It's worth noting that Arkansas ranked 149th and 201st in Mickelson's two seasons in shots at the rim, and 295th and 281st in FG percentage at the rim in Mickelson's two years there. However, it's also probably worth noting the rest of that roster was a disaster defensively, and Mickelson only played in about half the minutes.
Food for thought: Last year's final four teams averaged 99th in shots at the rim and 146th in FG% at the rim, so all is not lost for Kansas yet.
The previous two years:
48th in shots at the rim (although that was heavily influenced by Louisville ranking 109th thanks to their pressure defense), and 140th in FG% allowed at the rim in 2013
95th in shots at the rim, and 76th in FG% allowed at the rim.
So the #freemickelson verdict: while I do think Kansas functions best with a rim protector, the numbers above show that, for the limited sample anyway, the Jayhawks aren't as in dire straits defensively as we may think. Or, maybe it just means what we've been saying for a few years: offense wins championships.