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Saint Louis a scary opponent for KU

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Saint Louis players Dwayne Evans, left, and Mike McCall Jr. slap hands during a run by the Billikens in the second half of the CBE Classic, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Saint Louis players Dwayne Evans, left, and Mike McCall Jr. slap hands during a run by the Billikens in the second half of the CBE Classic, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

Team: Saint Louis
Record: 2-1
KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 35

3 Strengths

Defense ... all of it: Former coach Rick Majerus turned his team into a defensive force a year ago, as the Billikens ranked 10th nationally in KenPom's overall defensive measure (adjusted defensive efficiency). Saint Louis hasn't forgotten its principles under new coach Jim Crews, ranking in the top 60 so far in forcing turnovers (58th), defensive rebounding (15th) and defensive free-throw rate, which measures how often an opposing team goes to the line compared to its field-goal attempts (27th).

Restricting three-point shots: Ken Pomeroy has blogged recently about the best three-point defense not being one that keeps an opposing team's percentage down, but one that limits an opponent's three-point shots altogether. Because three-point percentages can vary so much from game to game due to chance, one way to play more consistent defense, Pomeroy believes, is to limit three-point shots, thus limiting a team's chances at hitting the lottery on a certain night.

Majerus had this same way of thinking when he was with Saint Louis, and it's evident by the way SLU plays. Only 19.9 percent of opponents' shots taken against the Billikens this year have been threes, which is the fifth-lowest split nationally. In three games, opponents have attempted just 29 three-pointers against SLU. Don't expect the Jayhawks to get many open looks from the perimeter Tuesday night.

Free throws: Saint Louis thrives at getting to the free throw line, averaging 23 freebies per game in the early season. Forwards Cody Ellis and Dwayne Evans have been the leaders at drawing contact this year, with Ellis putting up 20 free throws compared to 25 field goal attempts, and Evans having nearly identical numbers (25 FGS attempted; 21 FTs attempted).

SLU also has been a good free throw shooting team the last two years, making 71.9 percent of its shots from the line a year ago and 77.1 percent this year (36th nationally).

3 Weaknesses

First-shot defense: This is most likely the result of an extremely small sample size, but so far, teams have made a high percentage of their shots against SLU. Opponents have made 56 percent of their threes against the Billikens, which is the most fluky of Saint Louis' defensive stats. What might not be as fluky is St. Louis' two-point defense, which ranks 203rd nationally (48.7 percent). If teams are able to get shots inside, they have been able to convert quite a few of them.

Depth: Saint Louis doesn't have a deep rotation, as only 19.8 percent of its minutes come from its reserves (335th nationally). As mentioned before, the Billikens haven't been foul-prone this year, but keep track of the whistles, as foul trouble will be more likely to hurt SLU than KU.

Blocked shots: SLU actually went crazy with blocks against Texas A&M on Monday, rejecting five shots. That moved the Billikens' season total for blocks all the way up to ... six. Blocks weren't a staple of SLU's defense a year ago (228th nationally) and shouldn't play a major factor in Tuesday night's game, either.

3 Players to Watch

• Six-foot-5 forward Dwayne Evans (No. 21) has shouldered the most scoring load for SLU this season and has done so successfully. He is the Billikens' most efficient player while also ending more than a fourth of his team's possessions. So far, the junior has been especially dangerous inside, making 17 of 23 twos (73.9 percent) and 17 of 21 free throws (81 percent). He also returns as one of the nation's elite rebounders, ranking 25th nationally in 2011-12 in defensive rebounding percentage and 147th in offensive rebounding percentage.

• KU will face its second straight Australian in the post in 6-8 forward Cody Ellis (No. 24).

Texas A&M forward Elston Turner defends against a shot from Saint Louis forward Cody Ellis during the first half of the CBE Classic, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

Texas A&M forward Elston Turner defends against a shot from Saint Louis forward Cody Ellis during the first half of the CBE Classic, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. by Nick Krug

He's SLU's second-best player offensively behind Evans despite a poor shooting start (8-for-25 from the floor) because of his ability to draw fouls and make free throws (18 of 20 free throws this year). He's also sure-handed, posting the nation's 72nd-best turnover rate a year ago. This season, he has just two giveaways in 86 minutes.

• Six-foot-1 guard Jordair Jett (No. 5) isn't a great offensive player, but defensively, he's been a pest each of the last two years.

Saint Louis guard Jordair Jett and Texas A&M guard Fabyon Harris go for a loose ball during the first half of the CBE Classic, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

Saint Louis guard Jordair Jett and Texas A&M guard Fabyon Harris go for a loose ball during the first half of the CBE Classic, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. by Nick Krug

He posted steals on 3.3 percent of his defensive possessions a year ago (161st nationally) and has upped that number to 5.3 percent in three games this season. He had three steals against A&M on Monday and could cause KU's sometimes-careless backcourt problems on Tuesday night.

Prediction

Saint Louis is a good team. A really good team. And one only needs to listen to KU coach Bill Self's quote about the Billikens to have that thought confirmed.

"They remind me of Davidson in that they are physical. They don’t give up easy baskets,” Self said Monday. “You’ve got to make shots against them. (Monday night), A&M didn’t. Their big guys can stretch it. The way they play they could present problems if we are not amped up and ready to go.”

If Sprint Center is as dead Tuesday as it was Monday, the Jayhawks will have to once again create their own energy early in a quiet arena.

Honestly, the elements are there for an upset: a slow-paced team (SLU is 307th in pace) that plays tough defense and, as Self mentioned, forces KU to make jump shots.

Also add in that SLU gets to the free throw line — and KU's perimeter defense is still shaky at best — and you can see why I'm talking myself out of picking the Billikens to win.

I'll say KU holds on and that the fans will get loud when the Jayhawks need them to.

But I'm not picking KU by much.

Kansas 62, Saint Louis 61

Hawk to Rock

Going against a defense that allows a lot of twos and doesn't block many shots? It's time for KU's Perry Ellis to take advantage of a matchup that suits him perfectly. Even if he doesn't start, I'll say Ellis puts in double-figure scoring to go with at least four assists in extended minutes.

Predictions tally
4-0 record, 44 points off (11 points off/game)

Hawk to Rock
SE Missouri: Perry Ellis (2nd in KUsports.com ratings)
Michigan State: Jeff Withey (4th)
Chattanooga: Andrew White III (10th)
Washington State: Ben McLemore (4th)
Average: 5th in KUsports.com ratings

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