Game day breakdown: NCAA Tournament 2nd Round – No. 4 seed Kansas vs. No. 5 seed Auburn
No. 4 seed Kansas Jayhawks (26-9) vs. No. 5 seed Auburn Tigers (27-9)
Time: 8:40 p.m. | Location:Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah
TV: TBS | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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Keys for Kansas
1. Defend the 3
It’s been a key all season. It was the key in Thursday’s first-round win over Northeastern. So why not keep it going?
In Auburn, the Jayhawks are facing another team that shoots it extremely well from behind the arc and can get hot at any given moment.
After entering the tournament at 37.6 shooting from 3-point range for the season, the Tigers actually bumped that number up to 38.1 percent after their 12-for-31 shooting effort against New Mexico State in a 78-77 victory.
Several Jayhawks said the game plan for Auburn would be similar to the one they used — to great success — in limiting Northeastern (a 38.8 percent 3-point shooting team) to 21 percent from downtown in the opener.
But it comes with one small difference. Instead of closing out hard and not caring about what happens after that, the Jayhawks will have to be more aware of Auburn’s ability to put the ball on the floor and drive by them, using their speed and quickness to get into the paint and either score or draw fouls.
“Kind of the same game plan we had against Northeastern,” freshman guard Ochai Agbaji said. “Get out to shooters, make them put it on the floor, but, obviously, they’re a better attacking team than Northeastern, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
As for how he expected KU to handle that challenge, Agbaji said it came down to each man doing his job in the heat of the moment.
“I think it’s more of a feel thing,” he said. “The momentum of the game, how it’s going, all of our guys just have to buy in and lock in to defending our man.”
Added freshman guard Quentin Grimes: “We know they are really good and like to play really fast, get a lot of 3s (and) spread the court in different ways. So we have to be alert to the shooters.”
2. Next play mentality
One team won by a single point and dodged a couple of late shots and a monster meltdown down the stretch to advance to Saturday.
The other team rolled by 34 points, including a 50-28 margin in the second half.
While no one is expecting those trends to hold, it’s how each team moves past their most recent victories that might be key in this one.
New Mexico State’s near upset of Auburn clearly got the Tigers’ attention. All day on Friday, the Auburn players and coaches talked about their disappointment and frustration in how they finished their most recent win.
“The immediate aftermath was the guys were really down,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Friday. But we still won and we’re still alive and we still advanced.”
If the Tigers are able to move forward with that kind of vibe, it could allow them to play free and with a nothing-to-lose mentality.
Kansas, on the other hand, is moving forward with the idea that its 34-point win, though exaggerated in the final score, was an obvious sign that the Jayhawks are finally entering their best stretch of the season.
“They’re hot, they’re hot,” Self said of Auburn, which enters Saturday on a 9-game winning streak. “I don’t know that we’re hot, over time, but we played pretty well (Thursday), so I can convince our guys that we’re hot, too.”
Mindset and mentality as much as matchups and moves, could go a long way toward dictating how this one plays out.
3. Transition D
The Jayhawks had moments in Thursday’s victory where they struggled to match up with Northeastern while getting back in transition.
The miscues were few and far between and did not hurt the Jayhawks in the big picture given how efficient Kansas was on the offensive end against the Huskies.
In this one, with Auburn’s guards able to get out and run with anybody in the country, KU will have to be much more sound in locating men, matching up in transition and limiting easy buckets for the Tigers.
If they’re not, not only will Auburn put easy points on the board, but they also figure to gain some serious momentum from those quick-strike type of plays.
“We’re definitely going to have to sort that out and lock in on that against these guys,” Agbaji said. “We had a little problem with that (Thursday), but I think if we just stick to our principles and communicate, we’ll be fine.”
Auburn scored 17 fast-break points in its 1-point win over New Mexico State on Thursday. That number was the team’s most since Feb. 2.
Kansas, meanwhile, has surrendered more than 14 fast-break points to an opponent just three times all season — 26 to Michigan State, 23 to Louisiana and 20 at TCU — but gave up 13 to Northeastern in the NCAA tourney opener.
KU freshman Devon Dotson vs. Auburn junior Jared Harper
Few matchups demonstrate the big picture look of this 4-5 matchup like that at point guard, where KU’s inexperienced yet explosive leader will battle Auburn’s veteran and strong floor general for 40 minutes.
“Devon will have his hands full,” KU coach Bill Self said Friday. “I love (Harper’s) mentality, his talent, I love his toughness. It will be a big challenge for all our people, all our guards, but it will be one that they will welcome and are really looking forward to.”
At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, Harper is smaller than Dotson in terms of both height and weight, giving up 3 inches and 10 or so pounds.
While those numbers are negligible when it comes to many of the responsibilities of a point guard, the small size advantage for Dotson could be key in helping the KU freshman get his shoulders past Harper on his way to attacking the rim.
With the ball in his hands most of the game, Dotson will be extremely important in another crucial area of this game — turnovers.
At nearly 18 turnovers forced per game, Auburn is one of the best teams in the country in making life miserable for its opponents.
If Dotson, who has been good in taking care of the ball most of the season but also has had moments where he has shown he can give the ball away, isn’t up to the challenge of handling the intense and unrelenting pressure put on him by Harper and a host of Auburn players, it could cause major problems for the rest of the Kansas offense.
Not only will turnovers lead to empty possessions for the Jayhawks and potential points for the Tigers, but they also could disrupt KU’s offensive rhythm and efficiency and force Kansas to play a style it does not want to play.
Playing for a spot in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season — and a chance to head home to Kansas City, Mo. for the chance to win two more games for a trip to the Final Four — the Jayhawks bring a sense of confidence and calm into their matchup with a tough Auburn team.
The reason? They’re having fun and, as a result, they’re playing some of their best basketball of the season.
“My message (to the younger guys) has been: Enjoy it,” junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said Friday. “You’re here. This is what you have worked for. They have done a great job of preparing themselves for it and it’s a big moment. There’s a lot — there’s pressure. But this is what you train for. This is what you spend all those hours working on your game for.”
Both teams, of course, can take that same mentality into this clash, but there’s something to be said for a program — even if not the individual players — that has been in this position before a ton of times playing a team that hasn’t.
Auburn’s veteran group is playing for just the school’s fourth all-time trip to the Sweet 16. So while the experience advantage lands on the side of the Tigers, there’s still something to be said about the daunting task of playing Kansas for the right to move on.
“We’re here against, you know, maybe the most historic program in the history of college basketball,” Pearl explained. “With the opportunity to get another shot at it. … There are no freshmen any more. They have all been through it before. And Kansas still has solid pros, former McDonald’s All-Americans and a Hall of Fame basketball coach. So we’ve got our hands full.”
No. 4 seed Kansas
G – Devon Dotson, 6-2, 185, Fr.
G – Quentin Grimes, 6-5, 210, Fr.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Fr.
F – Dedric Lawson, 6-9, 235, Jr.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Fr.
No. 5 seed Auburn
G – Jared Harper, 5-11, 175, Jr.
G – Bryce Brown, 6-3, 198, Sr.
G – Malik Dunbar, 6-6, 230, Sr.
F – Chuma Okeke, 6-8, 230, Soph.
F – Anfernee McLemore, 6-7, 220, Jr.