Biggest Challenges Kansas Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Eastern Kentucky
The No. 2 seed Kansas Jayhawks (24-9) open their quest for a national championship on Friday afternoon in St. Louis, taking on the dangerous No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky Colonels (24-9) in South Region action.
These days, it's still somewhat shocking but not unheard of for a No. 15 seed to take on the role of giant-slayer and dash the hopes of one of the big boys. Florida Gulf Coast did it last year, defeating Georgetown and advancing all the way to the Sweet 16.
In 2012, both Duke and Missouri saw their seasons end at the hands of small-conference teams in the second round, losing to Lehigh and Norfolk State, respectively.
So anything can happen, and the Jayhawks can't afford to walk into St. Louis expecting to roll over a spunky, dangerous Colonels team from the Ohio Valley Conference.
Remember, this is March, and anything can happen.
The Jayhawks obviously want to avoid that fate. Even without their big man Joel Embiid, they still have Andrew Wiggins and a ton of offensive talent. But that doesn't mean it'll be easy.
These are the five biggest challenges that Kansas will face against Eastern Kentucky on Friday.
Eastern Kentucky is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation. The Colonels take a lot of shots from long range, and they make more than their fair share. In fact, led by senior guard Glenn Cosey, they made the third-most triples in Division I this season.
Cosey is an assassin from behind the arc, and he's more than capable of getting hot at the right time and doing serious damage to the Jayhawks. The best part about the senior from Flint, Mich., is that he isn't a chucker. He's not one of those three-point shooters who will lay bricks all night.
He picks his spots, shot 42 percent from three on the season and dropped the fifth-most triples of any player in the country. And he can hit shots even when contested. Very contested. That's the scary part.
It's understandable that Cosey gets most of the credit, but the Colonels have five other players who shot 37 percent or higher from three-point land this season. They run a four-guard set, and all of them—Cosey, Corey Walden, Orlando Williams and Tarius Johnson plus Marcus Lewis—like to shoot and can connect from three.
Kansas coach Bill Self understands the type of challenge his team faces, and he made a quite apt—if somewhat reaching—comparison to one of Kansas' toughest league foes this season.
"They’re going to play four starters that all shoot threes. They’re a lot like Iowa State in that regard," Self told Ben Ward of the Topeka Capital-Journal.
That's a pretty ringing endorsement from someone in the know. And if it brings back bad memories of the three-point barrage the Cyclones unleashed on the Jayhawks in the Big 12 semifinals, then maybe there's a little reason to worry.
Add to that the fact that the Jayhawks were one of the worst teams in college basketball this season at defending the three—opponents shot nearly 36 percent against Kansas this season, good for just 264th in the nation—and there could be a bit of a problem here.
Without Joel Embiid's big, physical interior presence, the Jayhawks are not a very good defensive team. And that's not so much a knock on Kansas as it is an endorsement of Embiid.
The 7'0" center from Cameroon, who, as reported by Mark J. Spears of Yahoo Sports via Twitter, is believed by at least one NBA scout to be the only potential franchise player available in the upcoming draft, just completely changes how Kansas is able to play on the defensive end.
He's big and physical and he clogs the lane, altering shots and forcing opponents to take lower-percentage opportunities. He protects the rim and grabs rebounds, and you can see his impact on the scoreboard. Not just from the 11 points a game he adds offensively, but also in terms of the countless points he keeps off for the opposing team.
In a regular-season-ending loss to West Virginia, without Embiid in the lineup due to a stress fracture in his back, the Jayhawks surrendered 92 points while allowing the Mountaineers to shoot 53 percent from the field.
In a conference-tournament-ending loss, to eventual Big 12 champions Iowa State, the Jayhawks gave up 94 points and allowed the Cyclones to shoot 54 percent.
Those numbers are not good, and they demonstrate an essential point about Kansas sans Embiid. They're just not that strong defensively.
Now, you might be thinking this could be a problem down the road, but against Eastern Kentucky?
The Colonels are primarily known as a three-point shooting team (36 percent on the year), but they are highly effective from two. They connected on 57 percent of their two-point attempts this season—good for fourth in the nation—and can hit a shot from just about anywhere.
They averaged 79 points per game, and the Jayhawks will need to make sure their defensive intensity is up to snuff, or the Colonels will put points on them in a hurry.
Without Embiid on the floor, EKU will find more open space and opportunities to light it up.
Eastern Kentucky isn't just a feast-or-famine three-point shooting team—see Belmont in recent NCAA tournament's for reference. They're a pesky group and can defend the ball well and force turnovers at a frightening clip.
The Colonels protected the ball as well as any team in college basketball this season, and their ability to take it away has to make teams, particularly a sometimes sloppy Jayhawks team, somewhat nervous.
For the season, EKU committed 208 fewer turnovers than their opponents, and their turnover differential of plus-6.3 per game was good for second in the nation. They just don't give up many possessions.
They're also one of the most accomplished groups of thieves in college basketball.
Pesky and aggressive, the Colonels snatched 291 steals this season—just under nine per game—and they'll be coming up against a Jayhawks team that isn't particularly good at securing the basketball.
Kansas averaged 14 giveaways per game this season—which is a little under the Colonels' average of 17 forced turnovers a game—and overall gave the ball away almost 100 times more than their opponents in this second-round game.
Those numbers are going to need to tighten up considerably on Friday.
The Jayhawks just can't afford to be giving away possessions against a team as potentially lethal from the field as Eastern Kentucky.
Eastern Kentucky is not one of those run-and-gun three-point shooting teams we've seen flame out—often spectacularly—in NCAA tournaments past. They play at a very average—and sometimes below average—tempo, looking for the best available shot.
They're not going to come blazing down the court, throw up a three—even if it's not there—and hope for the best, and that makes them pretty dangerous.
In large part, they have to play a deliberate style of basketball, because their rebounding is, putting it nicely, nonexistent. The Colonels were just dreadful on the boards, particularly at the offensive end, ranking a robust 350th in the nation at snagging rebounds.
The Colonels, by necessity, are a very patient team. They'll take whatever shot is open, and the Jayhawks will need to make sure that they keep up a consistent defensive effort and deny open shots. They can't allow guys to slip away from their defender and get space, because if they do, they'll hit.
If Kansas falls asleep on the defensive end, there are a bunch of Eastern Kentucky players who can burn them, and not just from long range.
It always happens this time of year, doesn't it?
Cinderellas are the reason that many of you watch the NCAA tournament in the first place, and there's just a warm, fuzzy feeling you get when one of the supposed one-and-done teams from a small conference bumps one of the big boys.
For some schools, just making it to the dance is enough of a reward for a season of hard work. In some cases, they're the first players from their school in years, sometimes ever, to go dancing in March. They're just happy to be here.
Eastern Kentucky is not one of those teams. They're extremely confident, come out of a conference with a couple of teams who have been potential Cinderellas in the past—Murray State has three NCAA tournament wins and Belmont is perennially a potential bracket-buster contender—and have the potential to get hot and put points up in a hurry.
Cosey and Walden are no joke in taking up the majority of the scoring for the Colonels, and if Kansas isn't on their game and playing their best basketball, they could find themselves heading home early.
Now, is that likely to happen? Probably not.
But who can really tell in March Madness?