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KU Hoops Preview: Sunflower Showdown Edition

KU travels to Manhattan to face what will certainly be a hostile environment

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas makes its annual trip to the Octagon of Room tonight in the first edition of the 2024 Sunflower Showdown. K-State is currently one of five teams tied for 8th in league play with a 4-5 record. KenPom has them rated the lowest of the five teams, sitting at 75th. They do have an impressive home win over Baylor under their belt, but outside of that they've lost every game against a team in the top half of the Big 12. They're also riding a four game losing streak that's included losses to a dreadful Oklahoma State team Saturday, along with more understandable losses to Houston and Iowa State on the road, and Oklahoma in Manhattan.

I feel like I write this in every single preview for Big 12 opponents, but K-State tries to win through defense. KenPom ranks their defensive efficiency 26th nationally, while their offense comes in at a brutal 155th. In Big 12 play alone, KenPom rates their defense 3rd and offense 12th out of 14. Their defensive eFG% in Big 12 play has been at the top of the league, but has benefitted from "3 point defense" luck with opponents hitting a dreadful 28% from three against them. It's very unlikely that number will stay below 30%, and I don't anticipate Kansas having any extra struggles from the perimeter tonight, though of course a rough shooting night can happen at any time.

Fortunately for Kansas, KSU's defensive success relies more on effectively challenging shots and putting pressure on ballhandlers rather than going all in on forcing turnovers. They actually rank just 10th out of 14 in defensive TO rate in league play, and have also been mediocre in that area for the rest of the season.

The aforementioned pressure on shooters has also has a negative side. While they allow a low percentage of shots to fall, their aggressiveness has them dead last in sending opponents to the free throw line. Kevin McCullar in particular is probably excited about the opportunity to take advantage of that. Hunter Dickinson will be matched up with a 6'11 senior rim protector in Will McNair, who boasts a 7.1% block rate for the season and has been a big part of K-State's 2-point defense. However, McNair isn't much of a rebounder for his size, and the team overall gives up a lot of offensive boards.

Unfortunately, KU hasn't really taken advantage of that against similar teams this year, so it may not be a huge factor tonight. KSU does hit the offensive glass very hard though, ranked 31st nationally in OReb% (though it's noteworthy that they've fallen to just 8th since starting Big 12 play). Kansas has had some difficulty on the defensive boards at times, so that's something to watch that could tip the scales in K-State's favor.

Offensively, as a whole, there isn't much positive to discuss. Kansas doesn't force many turnovers, but K-State is dead last in Big 12 play on giving the ball away. They've been a solid 2-point scoring team, making nearly 53% of their shots inside the perimeter. Though we know as well as anyone that sometimes a team just hits a ton of threes regardless of the scouting report, K-State is just 291st nationally in 3-point shooting for the year, though they've improved slightly in Big 12 play, where they've knocked down 32.7% compared to just 31.1% on the year.

That said, the Wildcats have consistently shot a lot of threes, so if they do get hot, it could greatly make up for some of their offensive deficiencies.

Prediction

It's going to be tough for Kansas to get up for this game coming off a massive statement win over Houston just two days ago. That said, the Octagon will no doubt be a rowdy place tonight given the rivalry here, so that may help Kansas stay locked in. This KU team has not played well on the road for the most part, and going on the road following a huge win, to play a team that likes to chuck threes, scares me.

However, there's no debate over who has more talent and physical ability in this game. If it goes KSU's way, it will likely be due to a hot shooting night and perhaps a letdown from Saturday's big game atmosphere. It's also important to keep in mind that McCullar is playing through a knee injury, so it's tough to know exactly what to expect from the potential All-American. Ultimately I do think Kansas will come away with the win, but I don't think it will come easily. I see this as another road game where Kansas doesn't fire on all cylinders, but comes away with a win even if it's not a comfortable one.

Kansas 77, Kansas State 74