The Kansas Jayhawks were without question the best team in the country heading into this year's tournament. The Villanova Wildcats are currently playing better than any other team in the tournament. So what happens when the two teams playing the best basketball in the country collide on Saturday night? Possibly the best game of the entire season.
Regular Season: 27-4, 15-3 in Conference, 1st place in Big 12
Best Win: Oklahoma (#6 RPI)
Worst Loss: Oklahoma State (#169 RPI)
Coach: Bill Self became the Kansas head coach for the 2003-04 season after Roy Williams left to coach at North Carolina. In his first season, Self coached his team to an Elite Eight appearance. Starting the next season, Self's Jayhawks have won 12 consecutive Big 12 Regular Season Titles, reached 2 Final Fours, and won the 2008 National Championship.
By The Numbers:
KenPom: #7 Offense, #4 Defense, #1 Overall
Four Factors on Offense: 55.8% EFG% (9th), 17.7% TO% (144th), 32.5% OR% (78th), 39% FTRate (109th)
Kansas is deep, talented, and much like Villanova, they've bought into the system. Sure they have the players you know like Perry Ellis and Wayne Sleden Jr. that can do everything, but it's the role players like ball handler Frank Mason, rim protector Landen Lucas, or combo guard Devonte' Graham. Then you have Self's unique talent for getting the most out of players with limited minutes, like sharp shooter Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk or a big wing Brannen Greene. Like I said, this team is deep.
It was no fluke that they were the #1 overall seed either. Kansas is the 4th best 3pt shooting team in the country at 41.8% and also connect on over 52% of their shots from inside the arc. They can play fast and furious at times and are great in transition. The one flaw in their offense that Villanova may be able to exploit is turnovers. Kansas isn't consistently bad at turning the ball over, but they can have bad nights. What's worse is that those bad nights come from their starting guards. Already in this tournament, Mason had 4 TO's against UConn, and Graham turned it over 5 times last night against Maryland. If Villanova can capitalize on points off turnovers, it could be the key to upsetting the Jayhawks.
Four Factors on Defense: 45.1% EFG%, (16th), 18.6% TO% (144th), 28.2% OR% (100th), 37.3% FTRate (181st)
Villanova and Kansas have very similar defensive strategies. They want to force their opponents into a difficult or contested shot with man pressure on the perimeter and help defense/rim protectors in the lane. They're length is a big factor in how successful they've been this year. They do have a tendency to give up some three pointers while locking down the paint, but you can bet Self will have his defense operating at peak efficiency to match Villanova's elite perimeter threat. A key for the Wildcats will be controlling the ball and not giving up easy turnovers or transition buckets.
Players To Watch:
Senior F Perry Ellis (6'8" 225 lbs.) - 17.2 ppg | 5.9 rpg | 1.3 apg
Junior G Wayne Selden Jr. (6'5" 230 lbs.) - 13.7 ppg | 3.5 rpg | 2.6 apg
Perry Ellis is Kansas's version of Ryan Arcidiacono, an experienced senior leader looking to leave it all on the court while leading his team on what could be a Championship run. Ellis is a real threat offensively both in scoring and on the boards, and it will be tough for Villanova to match him with their switching style of defense. Look for Jenkins, Reynolds, and Bridges to combine their efforts in shutting down the Jayhawk's elder statesman.
Wayne Selden Jr. came to Kansas with the potential of being a 1-and-Done, but never quite lived up to that. Now in his Junior year, that potential is being realized. Selden is an athletic wing with the ability to finish in the lane through contact, pull up and hit from mid-range, or as we saw against Maryland, drain a 3 over his defender. This might be the match-up of the night as Josh Hart will probably be called on to defend the Jayhawk's breakout player.
Style of Play:
There are two aspects of Kansas's game that are key to their success: Speed and Mismatches. The Jayhawks are great in transition and will push the ball given the opportunity, but the speed actually comes on the defensive end. They play a pressure man defense that tries to force teams into contested or poor % shots. Mason and Graham are small, but quick guards that can really get after ball handlers, while Ellis and Selden have the length to disrupt shots on the perimeter and in the lane.
On offense, Kansas looks to create and exploit mismatches. If they can get Ellis on the block against a smaller wing, he gets the ball every time. If Selden's guarded by a player he can blow by, they'll find a way to give him that opportunity. Even when it doesn't lead to a shot, the mismatch forces the defense to react on the interior, creating opportunities for a kick-out 3 around the arc.
I don't think anyone would have guessed that Kansas would be favored by only 3 points in their Elite 8 game, but then again not many people thought Villanova would hit their full potential in the tournament. By most accounts, this is a toss-up with the edge going to Kansas. Kansas is the better rebounding team, they're better on defense, they're deeper... the list goes on. But every time I hear anyone give Kansas the edge, they follow it up with one caveat. "If Villanova keeps shooting like this, I don't know how anyone beats them."