After what turned into a thorough beating of 16 seed Howard, the Kansas Jayhawks hope to make it out of Des Moines still going in the NCAA Tournament. First, Kansas has to get past Arkansas, the school the football team faced in the last game of their season. First, we’ll get this morning’s big news out of the way: as many of us expected, Bill Self will not coach the Kansas Jayhawks today. How big a factor in the game that represents is up in the air. Kansas didn’t lose any of the four games Norm Roberts coached at the beginning of the season while Self served a self-imposed suspension. Kansas also won the first two games of the Big 12 Tournament, against solid teams in West Virginia and Iowa State, without defeat. Texas did get KU pretty good in the Big 12 title game with Roberts at the helm, but to be fair, one week earlier, Texas did the same with Self still on the sideline. And of course, KU still won their first round game by 28 points, something Purdue showed us last night is not necessarily a given for even a 1 seed. Would I be more comfortable with the Hall of Fame, two-time National Championship winning head coach at the helm? Of course. Have we seen anything this year to indicate that Self’s presence on the sideline when the team has to play without him will result in the team struggling? Not really.
But on to the task at hand. The Arkansas Razorbacks entered the season with some fanfare, and went through their non-conference slate 11-2, with three truly tough tests: a win over San Diego State, and three point losses to Creighton and Baylor. The SEC slate is when people started to sour on them a bit, as they racked up losses to mostly respectable teams, while only compiling a few impressive wins. They went 8-10 against SEC competition, with their only wins over Tournament-bound teams being Missouri, Texas A&M, and Kentucky. That doesn’t paint a picture of a steamroller set to flatten its competition today, but there is cause for Kansas fans to be at least somewhat concerned.
Just looking at Arkansas’ roster and main players, they don’t start anyone shorter than 6’4, and their other starters are 6’5, 6’6, 6’7, and 6’9. Since Kansas will feature a lot of undersized point guard Dajuan Harris, with undersized guards Bobby Pettiford and Joseph Yesufu being the first off the bench, that’s at least somewhat concerning. The good news is that aside from KU’s shorter combo guards, the height matchup is fairly even, because Arkansas doesn’t really feature a big, dominant post player that would test KJ Adams in the paint. 6’9 senior Makhi Mitchell is a true center, but really isn’t much of an offensive force most games. Really, Arkansas themselves haven’t been much of a force offensively, ranking 55th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. They’re a very poor three point shooting team (ranking outside the top 300 nationally), and though they do drive early and often, hitting a lot of their twos and drawing fouls along the way, they’re pretty average at taking care of the ball and rebounding their own misses. Since they don’t shoot threes very well, they don’t shoot them often either, so be prepared to watch the Razorbacks attacking the basket early and often, making this a very important game for Kevin McCullar, KJ Adams, and Jalen Wilson, who will likely be pressuring a lot of shots inside the arc. McCullar and Adams especially have gone through bouts of foul trouble this year, and that’s something Kansas likely can’t afford today.
The defensive end is really where the Razorbacks like to shine. That group of taller, longer players likes to get inside the passing lanes, with a 12% steal rate that ranks 23rd nationally. They also use their length to block shots, where they’re top 20 in the country. Arkansas likes to play at high tempo, forcing turnovers and turning their defense into offense. Fortunately for Kansas, they don’t mind an up-tempo game and will look to create transition opportunities themselves. However, making safe passes and creating open shots will be a challenge against Arkansas, so it’s in the Jayhawks’ best interest to catch Arkansas napping any time they can, rather than having to settle into their halfcourt offense against a team with the right makeup to make it difficult for them to generate easy points.
I don’t like this matchup for this year’s team. With that said, plenty of teams worse than Kansas have found ways to beat this Arkansas group this year. Kansas likely won’t have to face a barrage of threes that would bury them, but with the way these teams play defense, this could get a bit ugly. An ugly, close game that comes down to the final minutes is exactly the type of situation where I’d want Bill Self running the show. We won’t get that, but hopefully Norm Roberts is up to the task. Honestly, I see this as a bit of a tossup, but because Kansas won’t be caught off guard by an intense defense trying to turn them over, having played multiple Big 12 teams who, in varying ways, focus on doing exactly that same thing, I’ll give the Jayhawks a very slight advantage.
Kansas 70, Arkansas 68