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A to Z guide to KU in the 2014 NCAA Tournament
While we put the final touches on our preparations for St. Louis, where we'll dive even deeper into both sides of the KU-Eastern Kentucky match-up that will kick off this year's NCAA Tournament, I figured another quick-hitter blog would help some of you kill time while you're waiting for Friday to arrive.
With that in mind, here's an A-to-Z guide to KU's postseason run, which focuses on everything from key players and moments to fun facts and what the Jayhawks will have to do to keep playing through the end of the month.
Andrew Wiggins has shown during the past few games that he can carry a team on his back offensively. That's gotta continue.
Bill Self likely will have to win KU a game by himself. Whether that's a particularly strong game plan, an in-game adjustment or an intense halftime speech, this is Self's time to shine.
Crowd support is always a huge advantage for the Jayhawks in March and that trend should continue this year, with the Jayhawks landing in a region that sends them to to the two closest sites to Lawrence should they advance. St. Louis for the second and third rounds, at 287 miles, is by far the closest site to the KU campus, and Memphis for rounds four and five is 41 miles closer to Mt. Oread than Indianapolis, which will host the Midwest regional semis and final.
Defense, with or without freshman center Joel Embiid, has to be better than it's been in the past few games or the Jayhawks may go home early. While Self's 2013-14 squad has not lived up to the incredibly high standard he has for his teams defensively, it has had moments where's it's been pretty darn good. The challenge now is to take those halves or 6-10-minute stretches and make them the rule not the exception.
Elite company. KU's 43 NCAA Tournament appearances rank fourth nationally behind only Kentucky (52), North Carolina (45) and UCLA (44). Kansas sports an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 95-41. The Jayhawks’ 95 wins are tied for fourth with UCLA and trail Kentucky (111), North Carolina (109) and Duke (99). Friday's game will be the 137th NCAA Tournament game in KU history. The Jayhawks’ 136 games in the event rank fourth all-time in NCAA history behind Kentucky (157), North Carolina (151) and UCLA (141).
Free throw shooting could be huge for the Jayhawks this postseason, particularly Andrew Wiggins. The KU freshman playing in his first and last NCAA Tournament is so tough off the dribble that he can pretty much get to the free-throw line whenever he wants. In his past four games, Wiggins is averaging 10 trips to the charity stripe per game, including 10 each in the Big 12 tourney and 19 in the regular season finale at West Virginia. More of that means more good news for Kansas and takes some of the pressure off of the half-court offense.
Greene, as in Brannen, played significant minutes in both of the Jayhawks' Big 12 tournament games and he delivered plenty of good moments and bad. When comfortable, he's a capable offensive weapon and his defense is not yet quite as natural. But if the Jayhawks choose to go small from time to time, he'll be a factor and his ability to play loose and let it fly could help the Jayhawks through scoring droughts or foul trouble.
Home away from home? Although they have never played at the Scottrade Center, this weekend's games will mark the fifth time KU has played NCAA Tournament games in St. Louis and the Jayhawks are 7-1 in four previous trips. Their most recent appearance came in the 2012 Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, where they knocked off NC State and North Carolina en route to the Final Four and national runner-up finish.
In the polls: Kansas is ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll released March 17. The Jayhawks were in the AP top 10 in each of the first five polls of 2013-14 and 14 times total. KU also is No. 10 in the March 17 USA Today Coaches’ poll. In the Bill Self era, this is the 170th week Kansas has been ranked in the AP top 25, which includes 121 times in the Top 10. KU has been ranked in each of the last 104 polls dating back to the 2008-09 season. In the coaches’ poll, Kansas has been ranked 197 times, including 145 in the top 10 in the Self era. KU has been listed in each of the last 108 coaches’ polls.
Jamari Traylor's rise. With Embiid sidelined, Traylor has received an opportunity to play more and make more of an impact. The sophomore big man has responded nicely, playing a career-best 27 minutes against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 quarterfinals and tying a career-best with nine rebounds in that same game. Traylor also had nine boards against Florida earlier this season in Gainesville, Fla.
Kurtis' reunion. It's been a while, but 10-year KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend was an assistant coach at Eastern Kentucky for the 1997-98 season. The EKU position was his second assistant coaching stint in the college ranks. He also coached at California from 1994-97. From EKU he went on to be an assistant at Michigan (1999-2001), USC (2002-03) and Miami (Fla.) (2003-04) before coming to Kansas.
Loaded schedule should have the Jayhawks ready for the postseason. It's no secret that KU played the nation's toughest schedule, but let's take it one step farther. During the 2013-14 season, the Jayhawks played 20 games against 12 teams who earned NCAA Tournament bids. KU was 12-8 this season against that competition — Baylor (2-0), Colorado (0-1), Duke (1-0), Florida (0-1), Iowa State (2-1), Kansas State (1-1), New Mexico (1-0), Oklahoma (2-0), Oklahoma State (2-1), San Diego State (0-1), Texas (1-1) and Villanova (0-1) — and the average seed of those 12 foes is 5.3.
Match-ups could definitely favor the Jayhawks the deeper they go in this one, especially if Embiid can play at some point. As was the case in the 2013 tournament with Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks, with Embiid and Wiggins, would be able to put two players on the floor that no other team has. There are other top-tier wings and other solid big men, but no one else has the combination of Embiid and Wiggins.
Nine-point-one points per game. That's how many the Jayhawks outscored opponents by during its first 33 games this season, 2,627 for Kansas to 2,325 for its opponents. KU's scoring margin ranked second in the Big 12 Conference, one of seven offensive categories that the Jayhawks ranked in the Top 4 in the Big 12 this season.
Open practice set for 2:15-2:55 p.m. on Thursday, March 20 at the Scottrade Center. You won't get an inside look at Self's game plan and probably won't hear too much yelling or screaming, but if you happen to be in St. Louis for the tournament, you will get the chance to see your team in a light practice designed to entertain the fans. The event is usually capped off by a brief dunk contest, but don't expect Andrew Wiggins or Tarik Black to be involved. Senior Justin Wesley most likely will be the star of that show.
Point guard play. More than any other factor — even more than whether Joel Embiid returns or not — KU's point guard play will determine how far the Jayhawks advance this postseason. If Naadir Tharpe finds his shot, limits his turnovers and leads the team, KU has a great shot to play deep into the bracket. If he struggles, so might Kansas.
Quotable: Bill Self on landing in St. Louis with fellow Sunflower State schools Wichita State (1 seed Midwest) and Kansas State (9 seed Midwest): “That will be one of the hottest tickets ever for the first two rounds because K-State, Kentucky, and Wichita State and us, I mean — it's going to be hard to get tickets. Our fans need to be creative in figuring out a way.”
Rematches a real possibility. Should they advance, the Jayhawks could face teams they already have played this season in four of the six rounds. The only two rounds where it's not possible? The opening round, where they'll face Eastern Kentucky and the Sweet 16, where they would play either Syracuse (3), Western Michigan (14), Ohio State (6) or Dayton (11).
Seeds matter. KU's in a pretty good spot and got a pretty good draw in this year's bracket. But it's important to remember that No. 2 seeds have been vulnerable during the past few decades. Seven 15 seeds have pulled the first-round upset — Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Georgetown in 2013 and Norfolk State beat Missouri and Lehigh beat Duke on the same day in 2012. In fact, only once in the last 15 years have all four two seeds reached the Sweet 16. What's more, the tourney winner has been a top four seed every year since 1989, with the national champion being a No. 1 seed in 16 of the past 23 tournaments.
Ten the magic number. According to Men's Health Magazine, the average total of the Final Four seeds since 1985 is 10.8. So when you're finalizing your bracket, be mindful of that fact and if you believe in the factoid and you're picking No. 2 seed Kansas, make sure the other three seeds in your Final Four add up to eight or nine.
Under-the-radar guards Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp could play crucial roles for this team in the next couple of weeks given how important good guard play is in the NCAA Tournament. Frankamp is one of the best shooters on the team and he could get hot on any given night. Mason has played big roles at times throughout the season and his toughness, speed with the ball and ability to knife through the paint could come in handy if KU's shots aren't falling.
Victories happen when KU reaches 80. The Jayhawks have topped the 80-point mark in 8 of their last 11 games. For the season, 18 of KU's 24 victories came when Kansas scored 80 or more. Given the inconsistency of their defense, the Jayhawks' best bet for a deep run might be trying to outscore their opponents.
Within striking distance. KU freshman Andrew Wiggins is 16 points away from breaking Ben McLemore's record for most points scored by a KU freshman in a single season. Wiggins' 574 points currently rank second, behind McLemore's total of 589 from last season, which eclipsed the 28-year-old record owned by Danny Manning (496). Wiggins’ 17.4 points per game is ahead of McLemore’s KU freshman-record average of 15.9 ppg and Wiggins already owns the KU freshman record for free throw attempts (220) and free throws made (169).
X-rays of Joel Embiid's back injury will be as talked about as any ailment in the past decade. Good news on the scan equals great news for KU's chances.
Youth a problem? Six players in KU's regular rotation are true freshman, meaning each tournament game will be a first for Wiggins, Embiid, Selden, Mason, Frankamp and Greene. All six guys have settled into their roles on this team, but there's no question that even the most experienced seniors have been rattled by the pressure of the postseason from time to time. Will these young guns remain poised or will the stage and stakes get to them?
Zone defenses — 1-3-1, 2-3, triangle-and-2, whatever — could be part of KU's postseason run if the Jayhawks' man-to-man defense doesn't get the job done. It's not likely that you'll see a total overhaul, but jumping into a zone for a few possessions here and there along the way could help Kansas and keep opponents off rhythm. Self has proven in the past that he's not afraid to do things like this when the it's win-or-go-home time, so thinking he might throw it out there is not completely crazy.