Kansas begins its 31st NCAA tournament in a row against the Big Sky tournament champion Eastern Washington Eagles. Sitting at 110 in KenPom, the second-lowest rated of the 14-seeds, the Eagles went 16-7 this year and 12-3 in the Big Sky regular season.
First, let’s take a look at some of the good and bad things (from a KU perspective) the Eagles do offensively.
The first thing that jumped out at me when looking at them is their pace. Eastern Washington ranked 28th nationally and first in the Big Sky in tempo this year. Furthermore, their offensive possessions take on average just under 16 seconds, and via Hoop-math, about a fourth of their field goal attempts come in transition.
They also take quite a few threes (about 40 percent of attempts) with most of those (83 percent) being assisted.
From a Kansas perspective, this is potentially good and bad. On the bad side, I think this team does much better defensively when it can play a slow it down, possession by possession game, and they haven’t gotten any offensive benefit from playing in transition, ranking 274th nationally in effective field goal percentage in transition, and their eFG in transition is only one percentage point higher than their eFG not in transition.
On the positive side, the Jayhawks certainly have more talent and more athleticism than EWU, and maximizing possessions could be a good way to let that talent advantage stand out and play an impact in the game. Furthermore, EWU doesn’t block a ton of shots and doesn’t provide a ton of resistance at the rim, so the theory is some of those misses in transition by the Jayhawks should turn into makes.
Another thing that stood out to me from EWU’s offense when I re-watched some of their conference tournament action, is the difficulty their guards had at getting to the rim, even against Big Sky competition:
Their best offensive player is 6-9 junior center Tanner Groves, the 2021 Big Sky Most Valuable Player. For the season he took almost 30 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor, while shooting a whopping 62 percent from two and just under 35 percent from three. Needless to say, he will be key number 1 for the Jayhawks. After watching him, I am a big fan of his game. He can score in a variety of ways, from facing up to posting up to getting past his man on the bounce, and he’s an excellent passer as well.
He’s also an incredibly smart player. Look how he is able to seal his man and get post position, leading to an easy layup:
Kansas should, however, be able to take some advantage of him and the EWU defense in general, especially in the pick and roll. EWU plays a lot of drop coverage in the pick and roll, which might not be the worst thing in the world against the Montana States of the world, but Marcus Garrett should be able to get to the rim at will with this much space being left for him:
Another bit of good news for Kansas is Eastern Washington doesn’t really pressure the ball handler at all. They ranked 301st nationally in forcing turnovers (although it is fair to note that two of the three power 5 teams they played this year turned it over a fair amount in those games), and 316th in steal percentage. The Jayhawks will frankly have to work pretty hard at turning it over in this one, which should maximize their number of field goal attempts they’re able to put up.
The Jayhawks should, even without Jalen Wilson, be able to hit the offensive glass and steal some possessions that way. Although EWU ranks 83rd nationally in defensive rebounding, a lot of that is due to the fact the Big Sky in general doesn’t seem to do offensive rebounding, While EWU has some size, the Jayhawks have a big time athleticism advantage that should help them steal some more possessions.
It’s also worth noting that Groves is not a great post defender, and it should be a good welcome back for David McCormack and a good way to hopefully ease him into the lineup before what figures to be a tough test in USC on Monday. Even if McCormack struggles, Mitch Lightfoot should be able to score in the post in this one as well.
I am staying with my tradition of not making picks for NCAA tournament games, but I will say I think this is a pretty good draw for the Jayhawks. Despite EWU’s willingness and ability to shoot the three, I think that’s about the only way they’ll be able to score against the Jayhawks, and I don’t think they’ll have too many good looks at the rim. Kansas meanwhile should be able to score as easily as they have been able to for at least a couple months, and even if they’re shooting poorly, the lack of turnovers and the extra possessions they provide should prove to be the difference.