Kansas had what should have been its easiest game of the regular season Tuesday against Eastern Illinois. In a game where the Jayhawks should have been able to coast and give the reserves some extra playing time, they couldn't get the game put away until late, and ended up with a sloppy 71-63 victory that cost them several spots in all the tempo free rating systems. Eastern Illinois is by all accounts one of the absolute worst teams in D1, and Kansas struggled to put them away.
Is Kansas still talented enough to blow out EIU? Of course. If that game gets played 10 times, 7 or 8 are probably blowouts. But before the game, I would have guessed that 9 of 10 would probably be blowouts instead we saw just how rocky things can get for Kansas when the offense isn't firing on all cylinders.
Of course, this isn't a recap of Tuesday's game. I don't want to write that, and let's face it, you don't want to read it. No, today's post is a preview of Friday's game against the reigning NCAA Champions, the UConn Huskies. Dan Hurley is now in Year 6 in Storrs, and after fairly steady improvement over his first few years, he got the team firing on all cylinders for virtually all of last season, winning all six tournament games by at least 13 points.
UConn lost 3 of 5 starters off last year’s title team, but so far the Huskies haven't missed a beat. Their toughest game to date was a neutral court matchup with Texas which they won by ten and never had a win probability (if you're into that sort of thing) under 75%. They're sitting at 7-0 on the year, ranked 4th in the AP poll, and 3rd by KenPom.
Much like last year, UConn plays at a medium-slow tempo. Their efficiency numbers are off the charts on both ends of the court, with KenPom's 6th-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense. They nearly lead the nation in 2-point shooting at an unbelievable 65.9% while holding opponents to an absurd 40.1% from inside the arc. They haven't shot threes very well (236th at 30.9%), but if you're looking for weaknesses, that’s pretty much it right there.
Additionally, they block over 15% of opponents' shots, they're a top-10 rebounding team on both ends of the court. They take care of the ball pretty well with a 15.2% TO rate, they make their free throws, their own shots rarely get blocked, and they get assists on over 60% of their field goals. This team, simply put, is really good.
Really, really, really good.
Their primary returning starter is senior wing Tristen Newton. He's the team's second leading scorer at 15.6 ppg. For his career he's been a mediocre outside shooter, and has hit on just 29% of his threes this year, but he is coming off a strong season in which he hit nearly 37% of his 123 threes. This year's numbers aside, he's a threat to score from anywhere. He gets to the line frequently and makes a fantastic 88.7% there, while hitting 56% of his twos. He's a solid perimeter defender as well.
Last year's team benefited quite a bit from having a dominant big man in Adama Sanogo. He blocked shots and rebounded on both ends, and was a dominant inside scorer while still being a threat from three. Fortunately for Kansas, Sanogo is in the G-League now. Unfortunately for Kansas, UConn still has two fine options at the center position.
7'2” center Donovan Clingan is one of few bigs who won't concede a size advantage to Hunter Dickinson. He doesn't shoot threes but he's made 70% of his twos, and he's borderline elite both in blocking shots and offensive rebounding. He doesn't foul much, so he'll likely get as much playing time as he can handle to try and offset Dickinson.
Meanwhile, 6'10” center Samson Johnston plays about as many minutes as Clingan, and will also be a tough test for the Kansas offense. He rarely shoots, but is another outstanding rim protector who pulls down a lot of offensive rebounds. Rebounding will be tough for Kansas, especially with a nominal power forward in KJ Adams who doesn't crash the boards.
The sloppy game against Eastern Illinois isn't that concerning to me. We all know Kansas is more than just eight points better than EIU. This, however, is a truly horrendous matchup for Kansas.
The concern is that offense is the weaker end of the court for Kansas as it is, and now the Jayhawks are facing a team with elite rim protection by players who have made life miserable for opponents trying to find easy buckets at the rim. That could mean that if KU somehow keeps this close, three-point shooting may be necessary to come away with a win. Kansas doesn't shoot a lot of threes, but they are hitting over 38% of the ones they try.
I trust Dickinson to find ways to score, even against size, but I don't trust Kevin McCullar, Dajuan Harris, and KJ Adams et al to find ways to score on this UConn team. I envision this as a horrible shooting night where taking and making threes is the only way to keep it close. The problem is, I don't think Kansas will hoist a lot of threes and I have my concerns that it would be tough to hang with UConn even if they do.
This is a bad matchup against what appears to be one of the country's elite teams, with Kansas not quite landing in "elite" territory with their play so far this year. Remember that 2015 Kentucky blowout that ended 72-40? I don't think it'll be that bad, but there may be hints of it at times. Again, I just don't see how Kansas will score on this UConn team unless they unleash a barrage of threes, something that seems unlikely.
Connecticut 74, Kansas 60