Kansas vs. Eastern Kentucky: Biggest X-Factors in Round of 64 Game
The No. 2-seeded Kansas Jayhawks (24-9) face a bit of risk and reward when they take on the No. 15 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (24-9) in the South Region second round on Friday afternoon in St. Louis.
Risk, in that the Colonels, who upset Belmont to win the Ohio Valley Conference's automatic bid, were ranked No. 6 by Bleacher Report's Thad Novak on his list of teams most likely to make a Cinderella run in this year's tournament.
Reward, in that for all of EKU's outside shooting prowess, they are one of the absolute worst rebounding teams in all the nation, and don’t have a big physical presence that could exploit the Jayhawks lack of stud freshman Joel Embiid.
Still, it always seems that a No. 15 seed either pushes a No. 2 to the absolute limit, or like Florida Gulf Coast a season ago, actually pulls the upset.
Kansas remains one of the most dangerous teams in the field, and should they become healthy, could find themselves heading to Arlington to compete for a national championship. But first they'll need to take care of business against a group of upstarts from Richmond, Ky.
These are the X-factors who will determine the outcome when No. 2 Kansas locks up with No. 15 Eastern Kentucky in the Round of 64.
Can Andrew Wiggins Live Up to the Hype in His First Tournament Game?
Andrew Wiggins has been playing in big games all season for the Jayhawks, but the pressure is only going to intensify as he makes his first foray into the tumultuous and unforgiving waters of March Madness.
The 19-year-old guard, a consensus lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, led his team in scoring, averaging over 17 points and six rebounds per game. When he was on, Kansas looked unstoppable, and he's more than capable of taking over a game.
But for all his talent and game-breaking ability, he's also prone to being a very streaky shooter who disappears for long stretches on the court. That's something he's going to need to stay away from in this Round of 64 game if Kansas hopes to avoid becoming this year's Georgetown and getting bumped by a No. 15.
Eastern Kentucky can score with the best of them. They averaged 79 points per game this season, which, at least on paper, means they should be in the game against a Jayhawks team that averaged 79.6.
Obviously Kansas' numbers mean more. It's one thing to average nearly 80 points against the Tennessee Techs and Morehead States of the world, and quite another to do it against Oklahoma State, Baylor and Iowa State.
But that doesn't mean Kansas is safe. The Colonels can score, and the Jayhawks, particularly Wiggins, can't go long stretches without points.
If he's not on his game, and the Colonels are, it could be upset city in St. Louis.
What Happens If the Colonels Find Their Touch from Long Range?
Want to see a couple of stats that'll give Kansas fans a some jitters leading up to game time?
Eastern Kentucky likes to shoot the ball from downtown, a lot, and they're particularly proficient at it.
The Colonels attempted the 13th most three-point shots in the nation this season (776), and they connected on the third most (303), good for a 39-percent success rate. Their three-point shooting success led them to 24 victories, the Ohio Valley Conference automatic bid—with an upset of traditional power Belmont in the conference tournament finals—and a scoring average of just under 80 points per contest.
If they're able to push the tempo, and start draining threes, they can put points on the board in a hurry.
Led by guards Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden, the Colonels averaged just over nine successful three-point attempts per game this season, and that's something Kansas needs to watch out for if they want to avoid an upset.
The Jayhawks need to be particularly cautious, given they were one of the worst teams in the nation this season at defending the three, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 36 percent. That made Kansas just the 264th best team in college basketball at defending the triple.
Traditionally, it's been hard for specialized teams like Eastern Kentucky to make deep runs into March, but if they get hot, a huge upset or two certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility.
How Will Naadir Tharpe Handle Glenn Cosey?
Naadir Tharpe has some task in front of him.
The point guard, who was frequently criticized for his inconsistent play this season, will likely be given the lion's share of responsibility for limiting Cosey, Eastern Kentucky's senior leader and best player.
Cosey, a guard from Flint, Mich., averaged over 18 points per game this season, and he was particularly dangerous from three, connecting on the fifth-most shots (110) from long range of any player in the nation.
He's going to take a lot of them—he averaged just under 13 attempts per game—and hits more than his fair share. It'll be important for Tharpe to contest as many of those shots as possible, and make sure that Cosey doesn't get easy looks and find his rhythm.
Kansas should have no difficulty scoring enough points to advance to the third round, but keeping the Colonels, particularly Cosey, in check is just as important.
Can Eastern Kentucky Steal an Upset?
This title is meant to be taken literally.
Eastern Kentucky will literally be looking to steal an upset.
The Colonels were one of the best teams in the nation this season at protecting the basketball and taking it away from their opponents.
They committed 208 fewer turnover than opposing teams this season, and averaged just under nine steals (8.8) per game, good for sixth in the nation. Their turnover differential was a +6.3 per game, only behind Louisville for the top spot in the country.
Eastern Kentucky plays an aggressive, attacking style of defense. That makes ball security a priority for the Jayhawks; unfortunately for them, it's an area they've been lacking in.
Kansas turned the ball over 435 times this season—as compared to 352 for the Colonels—and averaged just under 14 giveaways per game.
That'll need to tighten up.
Against a lethal long-range shooting team, with good defense and ball-hawking skills, you can't afford to give away possessions.
Will Tarik Black Continue His Strong Play in Joel Embiid's Absence?
The lack of Embiid shouldn't be too much of a problem for the Jayhawks in this contest.
After all, Eastern Kentucky was one of the absolute worst rebounding teams in the nation this season. And that's no exaggeration.
The Colonels averaged only 26.2 rebounds per game, which placed them—get ready for this—350th overall in rebounding for the season.
That's not a typo. It reads 350 and that's exactly what it's supposed to say.
Eastern Kentucky is a one-trick pony, and they rely entirely on their guard play to win games. The lack of any true frontcourt help means that Kansas' big men should have a field day
Tarik Black, who is in his first tournament with Kansas but played the last few seasons at Memphis, has a great deal of tournament experience. He's a big, wide body, who can score, grab rebounds and play defense.
In Embiid's absence down the stretch, during the Jayhawks final four games, he played his best basketball of the season.
Black upped his scoring average—8.5 points per game versus 4.9 for the rest of the season—and more than doubled his rebounding, averaging eight boards per game.
Against a team without a true big man, those numbers could improve even further, and that would give you just one more reason to like the Jayhawks in this matchup.
If you're one of those people who just has to have a No. 15 seed upsetting a No. 2, then you could definitely do worse than picking Eastern Kentucky in this matchup. The Colonels are spunky, shoot the three as well as any team in the country and could get hot at the right time.
Mind you, the key word in that sentence is could.
The Jayhawks will win this game.
It will be somewhat close, but they just have too much talent for Eastern Kentucky to compete down the stretch.
The Colonels will need to turn in a flawless performance, shoot out of their minds from long range—just ask their conference rivals Belmont how easy that is this time of year—and find some way to keep Kansas off the glass.
That's just way too much to ask.
Even without Embiid, the Jayhawks will have no problem controlling the game in the frontcourt, snagging rebounds and getting second-chance points.
Both teams can really score, and this one will be close at halftime, but Kansas will pull away late for a double-digit victory and a matchup with either New Mexico or Stanford in the third round.
Kansas 82, Eastern Kentucky 69
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