After winning six games in a row, including one against one against an AP Top 25 opponent, the ‘Cats were looking more and more like a team that could head into Lawrence with a certain swagger about them. Then, they went into Center City and got a schooling from the Big 5’s resident Ivy Leaguers.
Despite this shock, there is still reason for hope and even optimism as Jay Wright and his young squad fly halfway across the country and enter the Phog.
One of the best programs in the country year-in and year-out—and one that could look even better right now if it had not ran into Jay Wright and the Wildcats in both the 2016 and 2018 tournaments—Bill Self’s Jayhawks are coming off last season’s Final Four berth having only lost two players (both second round picks) to the NBA Draft. On top of this, Self and his assistants recruited the fifth-ranked class in the country in 2018, and its new blood has been vital to its early season claim to #1 in the nation.
The two notable five-star freshmen Self brought in this year, guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, have both shown flashes amid mixed results early this season. While Dotson has been, efficiency-wise, an average scorer with a PER of 15.6(15 is average), but has been more of a contributor on the defensive end. Meanwhile, Grimes has experienced more ups and downs with a PER of 9.4.
Regardless of this, Self has started both freshmen in all of the Jayhawks’ games so far this season and is allowing them the minutes to figure it out. Maybe he and Jay Wright will have a conversation on the topic during some downtime while the ‘Cats are in town. But back to the Jayhawks! With efficiency-god, “man who had a nearby Collin Gillespie layup next on his hit-list,” and center Udoka Azubuike sidelined with an ankle injury, Kansas has been operating smaller than usual.
But about Azubuike—the big-man’s bum ankle is since the Villanova’s loss to Penn the most promising topic ‘Cats fans can look to in a search for confidence in the run-up to Saturday.
With Azubuike out, Self and the Jayhawks lose not only a safety valve on offense with a PER of 27.6, but their rock on defense who is averaging 1.4 blocks per game and has defined their effort on that end of the court over the last two seasons. In their first game without Azubuike, Self opted to go small, and very small at that, inserting the 6-0 Charlie Moore into the lineup. With Dedric Lawson the tallest player in this lineup at a not especially bulky 6-8, Wright will have to use his lineup wisely, switching between the more traditional defensively stout style of Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and small-ball options such as Jermaine Samuels and Cole Swider. Expect Samuels to get the nod more often in this role against the #1 team in the nation.
But let’s not forget the Final Four vets who are playing on Saturday for the Jayhawks. Lawson and Lagerald Vick are the go-to guys on the Jayhawks offense. Lawson will start and Vick will likely come off the bench as the sixth man, but they’ll both let their shots go with an absence of conscience that will make ‘Cats fans go, “Hey Phil and Eric!” The difference is Lawson and Vick have gone about it with scary efficiency so far, with respective PERs of 27.8 and 19.6. For the ‘Cats, Booth and Paschall have PERs of 18.0 and 17.4, respectively.
Overall, I think this is a game where Villanova could take advantage of Azubuike’s absence and paint over some of their flaws with a bounce-back performance. At the same time, however, Kansas beating Villanova by double-digits and sending ‘Cats fans (irrationally) further into their therapists’ wallets would also not surprise me. After all, Kansas has only lost twice at home vs. non-conference opponents over the last 10 years—shoutouts to Arizona State and San Diego State.
Game time is tomorrow at noon eastern on ESPN. Happy finals, everyone.