Kentucky vs. Kansas: 7 Biggest X-Factors in NCAA Final on Monday Night
The term “uphill battle” doesn’t do justice to the task facing the Kansas Jayhawks on Monday night. On paper, it’s hard to find much encouragement for Bill Self’s squad as it tries to take down the No. 1-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
Of course, the NCAA tournament championship doesn’t always go the way it should on paper, and there are several question marks heading into this matchup that could potentially balance out Kentucky’s considerable advantages.
One major unknown is the performance of Jayhawk shooting guard Elijah Johnson, who could give Kentucky’s defense a workout if he can maintain the hot shooting hand he’s had throughout the postseason.
Read on for a closer look at Johnson’s prospects and another half-dozen variables that will decide which team cuts down the nets as 2012 NCAA champions.
7. Anthony Davis’ Scoring
For all that Anthony Davis is as Kentucky’s leading scorer, his effectiveness on Saturday night still had to be a welcome surprise for John Calipari.
Facing a 6’11” shot-blocking whiz in Gorgui Dieng, Davis not only scored a game-high 18 points but did it on 7-of-8 shooting from the field.
Kentucky would love to see Davis pull off a repeat performance against seven-footer Jeff Withey and the Jayhawks, but it’s far from a sure thing that he’ll be able to oblige.
If Davis is zoned in to that degree for the second game in a row, Kansas has no chance, but if he stumbles—as he did nine-point, 2-of-5 effort against Indiana in the Sweet 16—the Jayhawks will have a glimmer of hope.
6. Kansas' Transition Defense
Scoring in the half court isn’t usually a problem for Kentucky, but Kansas is going to give the Wildcat offense a run for its money.
Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson head up one of the few frontcourts in the country that won’t be overmatched by UK’s size.
Kentucky’s best weapon against the nation’s second-best field-goal defense (.379 shooting allowed) is not to give it a chance to set up.
Kansas cannot afford to get beaten down the floor for easy baskets, and the Wildcats have enough speed to do it with ease if the Jayhawks aren’t careful.
5. Kevin Young’s Inside Presence
The presence of do-it-all senior Darius Miller guarantees that Kentucky will have the best bench player in any game it plays.
One thing that would help Kansas considerably in making up for that edge would be another strong showing from junior Kevin Young. The wiry forward averaged just 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds a night for the year but has had an outstanding postseason.
Young managed five rebounds and a block in 11 minutes against Ohio State and eight boards against the mighty North Carolina front line.
If he can hold his own against the more mobile Kentucky bigs—even for a few minutes at a time—he’ll buy some valuable rest for Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson.
4. Thomas Robinson’s Shot Selection
One of the keys to Kansas’ comeback win over Ohio State was an overpowering defensive performance by Jeff Withey inside.
Buckeye star Jared Sullinger failed to adjust to Withey’s presence, and his 14 missed shots crippled the OSU attack.
That shoe will be on the other foot tonight, as Anthony Davis, the nation’s leading shot blocker, patrols the middle against Kansas.
Thomas Robinson may be able to find an offensive rhythm against the imposing Davis, but if he can’t, Robinson must look to contribute in other ways rather than beating his head against an impenetrable wall.
3. Elijah Johnson’s Point Production
While Tyshawn Taylor has scuffled in the NCAA tournament, backcourtmate Elijah Johnson has stepped up.
Johnson has raised his average from 9.6 points per game in the regular season to 13.4 points a night during March Madness. Johnson, who has also hit a remarkable 43.4 percent of his treys in this postseason, needs to stay on that roll against Kentucky.
History’s best shot-blocking defense is going to make life miserable for the Jayhawks inside, and a strong shooting night from Johnson on the perimeter is just what KU needs to open a few holes in the paint.
2. Marquis Teague’s Leadership
Counting on freshman point guards in the NCAA tournament isn’t usually an advisable approach, but Marquis Teague has risen to the challenge this year.
He demolished Iowa State with 24 points and seven assists and weathered Louisville’s intimidating pressure, committing just two turnovers while scoring eight points and dishing out five assists.
Teague’s decision-making will be put to the test against another defense that, like the Cardinals, features a dangerous shot-blocker in the middle.
If Jeff Withey is able to control the paint as he did against the Buckeyes, it will be up to Teague to find the holes in Kansas’ defense and figure out whether to create his own shots or set up the talented mid-range shooters around him.
1. Tyshawn Taylor’s Jump Shot
Tyshawn Taylor is Kansas’ second-leading scorer this season, but the NCAA tournament hasn’t been kind to his field-goal percentage.
The senior point guard has put up some wince-inducing shooting nights—3-of-11 against Ohio State, 2-of-14 against NC State—while missing all 20 three-pointers he’s taken in the Big Dance.
For the season, Taylor has actually been an outstanding shooter, hitting at a .477 clip from the field and .377 from three-point range.
If he gets his mojo back against Marquis Teague—who's not nearly as effective a defender as he is on offense—Kentucky will be in for a serious fight.