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March Madness, Final Four Preview: #1 Villanova vs. #1 Kansas

Right Side of the Bracket Goes (Rock) Chalk for the ‘Cats

In case you haven’t heard, the Villanova Wildcats are in San Antonio and will taking on the Kansas Jayhawks in Friday’s second Final Four semi-final. It’s honestly felt a little surreal for me, having gone from almost a numb-relieved-type feeling after the Elite Eight game, to the Bosshog-Pain-Train level of excitement I am at now. Get me to Texas!

As we know, the Wildcats are coming off a tight game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, a Big 12 conference mate of Kansas, while the Jayhawks narrowly escaped with a win over the Duke Blue Devils, a program we no longer have to hear about.

So, in advance of Saturday night’s main event, let’s take an in-depth look at the Kansas Jayhawks.

Like Looking in the Mirror?

If you have been gobbling up all of the hot “taeks” this week, you are aware that the narrative appears to be that Kansas is basically (a slightly lesser) Villanova. While this is somewhat of an analytical cop-out, it isn’t exactly wrong. The Jayhawks and the Wildcats share a lot of similarities, the main of which is their strong offenses, both buoyed by elite three-point shooting.

An an initial point, this game will not be the whistle-happy affair we’ve become accustomed to seeing in this year’s tournament. Neither team draws or commits many fouls, preferring to move the ball to open shooters on the perimeter. So, in that regard, the game should be much more enjoyable for everyone watching, especially when you consider the caliber of the offenses,

Villanova ranks #1 in AdjO and, as we know, boasts arguably the best offense of the KenPom era. Down in Lawrence, the Jayhawks have built the #5 ranked offense on KenPom around a balanced team of skilled shooters. Kansas has Top-20 rankings in 3P% (9th) and 2P% (19th) and five of the Jawhawks average in double-figures (sound familiar?). The Jayhawks are undoubtedly the best offense Villanova has seen this season, checking in just a few spots ahead of Xavier (RIP), WVU, and Marquette.

Kansas loves to shoot the three-ball. The Jayhawks have taken the 11th most threes in the country this year (still fewer than Villanova, though) and have hit them at a 40% clip as a team. The air assault is led by Svi Mykhailiuk, who takes nearly seven threes a game. Against Duke, the Ukraine-maker went 3-9 from deep including a shot late in regulation to tie the game. Malik Newman and Devonte Graham also like to dabble in the deep ball, both averaging over five attempts per game and connecting on nearly 40%.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kansas vs Duke Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Three point-shooting is an integral part of Kansas’ offense and, if given some space, the Jayhawks will not hesitate to let ‘em fly. In fact, the Jayhawks rank 330th in FTA/FGA, which underscores just how adverse they are to getting dirty inside. The Villanova defense, which has ascended to #13 in KenPom and ranks Top-30 in 3P defense, will need to stay sharp on switches to prevent the Jayhawks from swinging the ball to the open shooter, something they do very well.

The Jayhawks do not play particularly fast on offense and really try to slow opposing teams down on defense. While they are not an aggressive defense, like West Virginia or Texas Tech, and rarely generate turnovers, they are smart and, like Villanova, play defense as a unit. That being said, they are not particularly strong on the boards, in part because they are relatively undersized. Aside from 7’0 Center Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks primarily field a four guard line-up, the tallest of which is 6’8 Svi Mykhailiuk.

All in all, the Jayhawks are pretty much what you would expect them to be: a solid team. There is no glaring weakness, especially since I am obligated by contract to avoid criticizing teams that shoot a lot of threes. At most, you could probably point to the glass as a weakness for the Jayhawks, something Villanova could possibly exploit like they did against Texas Tech.

Jayhawks to Know

Devonte Graham

Devonte Graham, the senior point guard of this Kansas team, does it all. The Big 12 Player of the Year, Graham is averaging 17.2 points, 7 assists, and just over 1 turnover a game. At 23, he’s experienced and a very strong athlete. He can take defenders off the dribble, is a strong passer, and rarely hesitates to dish it off for a better shot. While arguably no one can compete with Jalen Brunson this year, Devonte Graham is pretty much as close as you could get with a point guard.

While the narrative is that Graham and Brunson will be going head-to-head, this remains to be seen. Graham, as is the case with most guards, might struggle to defend against Brunson’s post-moves. We may see Kansas switch to Newman or Vick to try and guard against Brunson backing the Jayhawks down to the basket.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kansas vs Duke Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Udoka Azubuike

Udoka Azubuike, a 7’0 sophomore, is Kansas’ main big threat. Azubuike is a physical specimen, boasting a Bridges-esque 7’5 wingspan, but he is very raw. While he’s strong, energetic, and a load down low, he’s not as refined as some of the more experienced big men Villanova has faced. He does not have a great jumpshot and is not much of threat offensively once he is pulled away from the bucket. That being said, he plays very hard and his mere presence down low raises the potential of foul trouble for Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall should they get too aggressive. I will make clear that there is absolutely no concern about Azubiuke at the line, as he shoots 41% from the line (not a typo, 41%). Forty-one. Percent.

I believe Azubuike is a “red herring” here, a threat Villanova might seek to neutralize but basically to their own detriment as he is not a strong offensive threat to begin with. Ideally, I think we see Spellman, and his prowess from deep, try to draw Azubuike away from the basket on the defensive end, and have Villanova cut off the passing lanes to him on the offensive end, should that even be necessary. Given how well Kansas shoots the three-ball, I ultimately suspect Jay lets Azubuike get whatever he can inside and focuses on Graham, Newman, and Mykhailiuk.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kansas vs Duke Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Newman

Malik Newman, the 6’3 transfer from Mississippi State, was billed as having a coming out party against Duke last weekend when he dropped 32 points. However, to be fair, Newman has been on fire since postseason play began. In the Big 12 tournament, Newman averaged 24 points a game and, in Kansas’ second round game, dropped 28 on Seton Hall. He is an elite scorer and, if he’s feeling it, he will light a team up. He is shooting nearly 50% from three in the NCAA tournament and looks to be a challenging match-up for either Phil Booth or Mikal Bridges.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kansas vs Duke Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas is a great team that is peaking at the right time. While they do not necessarily have the sexy names of teams past, they are incredibly solid, disciplined, and experienced.

Kansas by the Numbers

Overall: 31-7 .816 W-L% (11th of 351)

Puzzling Losses: The Jayhawks lost three times at Allen Fieldhouse this year, after previously going 101-3 over the previous 10 seasons against major conference opponents at home. The losses came against Arizona State in December, Texas Tech in January, and Oklahoma State in February, with a fourth loss against Washington happening off-campus in Kansas City.

Notable Wins: The Jayhawks picked off Duke to advance to the Final Four but had a few other notable wins this season. Beyond beating #16 TCU, #6 WVU (and the #18 and #20 iterations...), #6 Texas Tech en route to their 14th straight Big 12 crown, the Jayhawks also beat #7 Kentucky at the beginning of the season.

Conference: 13-5, 1st in Big 12

The Jayhawks split with Texas Tech. Kansas won at Texas Tech, 74-72, in late February, but the Red Raiders won in Lawrence 85-73.

The Jayhawks beat West Virginia three times this season, most recently in the Big 12 Tournament final 81-70. Kansas also won in Morgantown 71-66, and in Lawrence, 81-70, earlier in the year.

Big East

Kansas beat Seton Hall 83-79 in the second round, though not without controversy concerning some late calls.

Big Five

Kansas beat Penn 76-60 in the first round, though let the Quakers jump out to a 10-point lead early in the first half.

PS/G: 81.4 (29th of 351)

PA/G: 71.3 (149th of 351)