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Preview: Tarleton State

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The Jayhawks take on an unfamiliar opponent with a very familiar coach.

Logo of Tarleton State University on building in Stephenville Texas Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Coming off a big double-digit victory over Michigan State in Tuesday’s Champions Classic, the Jayhawks will play a much different type of game tonight in Lawrence. Not only will they be back in the friendly confines of Allen Fieldhouse, but their opponent is anything but a powerhouse program. The Tarleton State Texans are in town for what should hopefully be a much easier, low-stress matchup.

Tarleton was a Division II school up until just last year, which also happens to be when they hired Billy Gillispie, former coach for Kentucky and Texas Tech. Gillispie, for all his off the court issues which I will not dive into here, is a very solid coach for a just a second year D1 program. The Texans started last year ranked near the bottom of all D1 schools by Ken Pomeroy, who had them 334th in their preseason rankings. By the end of the year, they had climbed to 286th, and currently sit at 214th, which really isn’t too bad given the profile and history of the program.

Stylistically, Tarleton State will try to slow the Jayhawks down and avoid getting into a track meet type of game which they simply lack the horses to try and win against an opponent like KU. Last year their adjusted tempo had them 331st nationally in pace, with an average possession length of nearly 20 seconds, which ranked 341st. They’ve played one game this year and the strategy looked very similar, as they sit at 348th in adjusted tempo so far.

That one game the Texans have played came on the road against Stanford, who took them down in a rock fight, 62-50. In that matchup, TSU shot 52% from inside the arc, but a substandard 7-25 (28%) from deep. However, last year Tarleton ranked 25th nationally, hitting 37.4% from deep, so game one may have been a fluke. Their top three point shooter from last year, Montre Gipson, returned this year and went just 2-7 (29%) against Stanford.

It remains to be seen just how many threes they are looking to seek out this year, but despite their good numbers last season, they were near the bottom of D1 in attempting just 28.7% of their field goals from deep. Against Stanford nearly half their shots were threes, so it’s anyone’s guess at this point whether that is now a bigger point of emphasis in their offense. But given that they are at a massive size disadvantage against KU (their tallest players are listed at 6’6), I would bet on seeing quite a few three point attempts.

Players to Watch

Montre Gipson, senior point guard

The aforementioned Gipson was TSU’s leading scorer against Stanford and was their leading scorer last year as well. At 5’11 he likely wont be trying to get to the basket and challenge KU’s length, but given that Dajuan Harris and Remy Martin will be defending him most of the time, his height may not hurt him as much as it would against most KU teams over the years.

He didn’t shoot a lot of threes last year, just 42 in fact, but he did hit 52.4% of them. He never attempted more than five in any game last season, so his seven attempts in game one would suggest that Gillispie has given him the green light for his senior campaign. Last year he also shot 55% from inside the arc, so efficient scoring is his primary asset, while also posting a very respectable 27.6% assist rate. Gipson is the motor of this team, and if Kansas shuts him down, this game will likely get ugly fast.

Tajh Small, senior wing

Small, a 6’5 small ball PF/C, was quietly efficient last year, hitting 55% of his twos and 40% of his threes (albeit on just 25 attempts). He was also the team’s top rebounder and was the only player aside from Gipson to post an ORtg over 100 last year for the Texans. However, despite his use as a “big man,” he is not an impressive shot blocker or offensive rebounder, and turns it over a bit too much. Still, if he plays the 5 and McCormack ends up assigned to him, his ability to play out to the perimeter may open up a few good looks for him.

Freddie Hicks, sophomore “center”

Hicks, at 6’6 and 210 pounds, was listed as the team’s starting center vs Stanford. He put together a decent freshman campaign last year and, like all of Tarleton’s “bigs” can play out on the perimeter and knock down some threes. He went 8-25 (32%) from deep last year, and went 2-5 (40%) against Stanford this week. Given the five three point attempts in game one, it’s reasonable to expect that he will keep shooting from deep, especially against a team like Kansas who has the size and length to keep him from hurting them in the lane. He made just 35.1% of his shots inside the arc last year, and was 0-4 against the Cardinal.

My Pick

Tarleton State turned it over on 23% of their possessions against Stanford, while forcing turnovers at the same rate on the other side of the court. The defensive turnovers are likely the reason the game was as close as it was. If Kansas protects the ball and takes advantage of some Texans turnovers, they could easily rack up major transition points and put this one away early.

Even if TSU takes better care of the ball in this one though, it’s just very difficult to see their path keeping this one close, unless they go nuclear from behind the three point arc. They lack the size to really bother David McCormack, and getting Mac going would be a huge boost for him early in the season, coming off a rough debut against Michigan State. They also lack the athleticism to match guys like Remy Martin and Ochai Agbaji, who should be able to get to the rim far more easily than they did Tuesday night.

The line on this one sits at Kansas -26.5. I don’t foresee this being a close game, but Tarleton State’s snail-paced style of play could take Kansas out of their rhythm a bit, and keep this a lower scoring affair. If Kansas is able to up the pace of the game by creating turnovers and looking for fast break opportunities, this could be a major blowout. Since Kansas is still figuring out their exact identity and struggled at times in properly executing their half court sets against MSU, I think the pace of play may keep them from really opening it up and beating the spread. I don’t expect any late game nailbiting, but I don’t think we’ll see a 40+ point blowout either. I’ll take Tarleton State to just barely cover. Kansas 80, Tarleton State 55.

David’s pick record this year:
Outright: 1-0
ATS: 1-0