Kansas looks to put an uninspired performance at last weekend's ESPN Events Invitational behind them tonight as they face what is likely their second toughest test of the year so far. Technically this is a neutral site game, but since their opponent, St. John's, is located just a short drive from UBS Arena in Elmont, NY, it's fair to say one team has a geographical advantage.
The Red Storm are ranked 55th by Ken Pomeroy, and 69th by Bart Torvik, while the Jayhawks come in 5th and 7th respectively. Pomeroy sees them as a fairly balanced team, good on both ends of the court but great on either. They've shot exceptionally well this year, especially from inside the arc, ranking 4th in all of D1 by hitting 60.5% of their twos. Their outside shooting is fine, but nothing to write home about, sitting at 34% as a team. Since KU's defense is still getting the kinks worked out, and has been frankly awful in terms of two point shooting allowed with no strong rim protection, this is probably the largest area of concern headed into this game.
While making baskets has come easily to the Storm, taking care of the ball has not as they rank 241st in offensive turnover rate. Unfortunately, forcing turnovers hasn't been a particular strength for the Jayhawks as a team, but they do have a few players with quick hands who may be able to generate some transition points here and there.
As we turn to St. John's defense, this is where I point out that a familiar face will be on the opposing sideline tonight. Former Missouri coach (and firm believer in defense-by-hacking-for-steals) Mike Anderson has St. John's generating turnovers on an impressive 24.7% of their defensive possessions. That should be a strength-on-strength battle though, as KU is one of the better teams in the nation - so far - in taking care of the ball.
It's worth noting that St. John's pure stats have to be viewed with an asterisk. Aside from a road game with Indiana (which they lost by just two points), their schedule so far has been nothing but cupcakes. The average KenPom ranking of their other five opponents is 293rd, as they've filled their schedule primarily with weak mid-majors from the New York/New Jersey area. Their last two games, against St. Francis and NJIT, were home games decided by single digits, with NJIT taking them to overtime.
Players To Watch
Julian Champagnie, junior forward
Champagnie is far and away St. John’s biggest scoring threat, while playing excellent defense as well. At 6’8, he’s a stretch four who hits 35.7% of his threes, and 52.4% of his twos. His block and steal rates are both very respectable (though part of that is likely due to feasting on smaller and less talented opponents), and he’s scored 20 or more in four of their six games.
Posh Alexander, sophomore guard
Alexander boasts a fantastic assist rate of 35.7%. That too is inflated by their weak schedule, but as a freshman he was at 24.1% so it isn’t a complete fluke, either. Like all of Anderson’s guards, Alexander will look to generate steals as well, with a steal rate of 4.2%, ranking in the top 100 of all D1 players. He’ll find his own shots as well, scoring in double digits in every game so far. He’s been getting to the rim for a lot of these points, shooting 64.3% on his twos and getting to the line regularly, where he hits 88.9% of his free throws.
Dylan Addae-Wusu, sophomore guard
Addae-Wusu has only started one game, but he’s been very valuable off the bench, and plays in more than half their available minutes. His block and steal rates both sit at a solid 3.2%, while he dishes out a decent number of assists as well. There’s a possibility he could be that random guy who goes off from three as well. He’s unlikely to rack up a lot of points, but he appears to do a lot of things well all over the court, and could still be a difference maker.
This game is tough to gauge. The line sits at Kansas -7 right now, and I could make a solid argument for this landing on either side of that number. St. John’s has been turning teams over without fouling, and Kansas has only played one opponent (North Texas) that hunts for turnovers. This will be a style of defense the Jayhawks haven’t seen yet this year, and we’ve seen chemistry issues as KU’s new players continue to try and gel. Additionally, KU has also been giving up way too many easy baskets, and St. John’s has been excellent and finding them.
With all that said, there’s a reason Kansas is rated much higher. St. John’s played well against Indiana, but has also really struggled with some bad competition. Their numbers look scary, but they’ve padded those stats against some truly bad teams. I think this game may stay close most of the way, but in the end I think Self will have the guys ready to rally back from last weekend, and the superior talent will take over. I’ll give St. John’s the points and take the Jayhawks, but not by a whole lot more. Kansas 83, St. John’s 74
Prediction record straight up: 5-0
Prediction record ATS: 3-2