Kansas vs. Michigan State: 5 Keys to the Game for the Jayhawks
The Champions Classic name did not require explanation as the three-year series features four of the most successful basketball teams in the country, including the Kansas Jayhawks and Michigan State Spartans, two historic programs that will meet in Atlanta this week.
This will be the second game of the 2012-13 season for both KU and MSU, but there is one glaring difference in each team's opening box score, aside from the outcome: location.
Tom Izzo led his team across the pond to face Connecticut at the United States Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday, some 4,000 miles from East Lansing while Kansas trotted a mere 100 yards from the Jayhawk Towers over to Allen Fieldhouse to defeat an overmatched Southeast Missouri State team.
The level of competition from the Redhawks of SEMO is a far cry from Big East powerhouse UConn. While an early test typically produces future favorable results, the overwhelming difference in 9,000 air miles for Michigan State to only 1,300 for Kansas might be the biggest factor as the Spartans look to avoid an 0-2 start.
Bill Self and his Jayhawks may have the travel edge, but a similar performance to that of their 74-55 win on Friday that included cold shooting, costly turnovers and poor ball movement inside will send them to 0-2 in the Champions Classic.
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An assist-to-turnover rate of 0.92, one that KU produced in Friday's victory, will not suffice in Bill Self's pass-heavy, high-low offensive system. It will not help in bringing a ninth straight Big 12 regular-season title to Lawrence, one they achieved last season with a still less-than-ideal 1.15 ratio.
Tyshawn Taylor departed via graduation, leaving Self with sophomore true point guard Naadir Tharpe and senior combo guard Elijah Johnson, with Johnson expecting to receive the bulk of the minutes.
Those two along with Travis Releford and Ben McLemore must efficiently move the ball around the perimeter with Perry Ellis and Jeff Withey receiving as many touches as possible down low in order to keep the Michigan State defense off balance, something they did not do consistently in their opener.
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A 85.7 percent clip from the charity stripe during Friday's victory was incredibly encouraging, considering their numbers in 2010-11 (67.9) and 2011-12 (69.2). Also, note they shot an inadequate 66.7 percent during last April's title game and a pitiful 53.6 percent in their loss to VCU in 2011.
The starting five combined to shoot 20 of 23 at the line in their opener, contributing to the team's excellent number. Self expects big men Perry Ellis and Jeff Withey to have their share of free-throw opportunities this season, and it starts with aggressive inside play followed by conversions at the line against Michigan State.
Turnovers: Crisp Entry Passes
Travis Releford had 4 turnovers in Friday's win.
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Upon losing their two most productive offensive players in Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, a duo that exploited poor inside positions and loose perimeter defense, Kansas must improve their entry passes to Ellis and Withey.
Their ball movement around the perimeter was sufficient but repeated lazy lob passes down low were easily plucked away by the feisty Redhawks.
Michigan State forced 12 UConn turnovers and their versatile forwards will have no problem capitalizing on these entry passes from KU if Travis Releford (4 turnovers) and Naadir Tharpe (2) do not provide better decision-making.
Hit the Open Shots
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You cannot expect many wins when shooting an ice cold 2-of-21 from the three-point arc while also whiffing on a dozen open shots from just inside the perimeter.
The Jayhawks have enough speed, athleticism and offensive threats to regularly create open shots, but the failure to execute on these opportunities kept Southeast Missouri within single digits for much of the second half.
Quick triggers that resulted in 31 percent shooting (11-of-35) from Releford, McLemore, Johnson and Tharpe must improve against the Spartans, as they cannot expect to receive that many open looks against Izzo's always tight defense.
Handle National Stage
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Kansas has been there. Bill Self has been there and so have his trio of seniors, but six underclassmen that expect to receive significant minutes this week have not been there.
Prep stars come to Lawrence expecting to receive plenty of national attention, but during last year's early-season loss at Madison Square Garden to Kentucky in the Champions Classic, Self's thin and inexperienced roster appeared lost in the headlights.
Defensive breakdowns inside and lost assignments on the perimeter allowed Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to dominate an overwhelmed KU team in the second half.
A trip to the Maui Invitational the following week featured three national TV games against historically prominent programs, but the suddenly disciplined Jayhawks looked significantly better in the spotlight.
Those seniors and Self's veteran coaching staff must adequately prepare the six youngsters for this mega early-season matchup versus a living legend in Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans.