If the Kansas Jayhawks have been dwelling on last week's narrow one-point victory over an underdog UCLA squad, it's time they kick the habit. KU faces its toughest non-conference opponent of the season in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday when they take on the Memphis Tigers.
Memphis, undefeated at 7-0 and ranked 12th in the nation, is one of the youngest teams in college basketball. Coach Josh Pastner plays a deep rotation, as 10 Tigers average over 12 minutes per game. Among them are star junior F Wesley Witherspoon and star freshmen Joe Jackson and Will Barton, each of whom was a consensus top 25 recruit.
If the Jayhawks want to avoid another nail-biter in NYC on Tuesday and remain one of the country's few unbeatens, stopping the Tigers' best players will be key.
Standing 6'9'' and possessing perimeter and post skills, Witherspoon is a tough matchup for any team. Though he averages somewhat modest per game numbers of 13.7 points and five rebounds, Witherspoon has been amazingly efficient this season. The junior is shooting 83 percent from the line, 62.5 percent from three-point range and 60.5 percent overall.
Witherspoon scores from all over the floor, utilizing an accurate jumper, good ball-handling ability and crafty moves in the post. Watching him play, don't be surprised if a more interior-oriented version of Duke's Kyle Singler comes to mind—he's that versatile.
Defensively, Kansas will throw a number of defenders his way. Depending on whether he is playing in the post or on the wing as well as personnel groupings, everyone from Marcus Morris to Brady Morningstar may get a shot at checking the future NBA player. Keeping Witherspoon's numbers away from Derrick Williams and Tyler Honeycutt territory will go a long way to ensuring a KU victory.
An undersized offensive spark plug, Jackson is Memphis' second leading scorer at 12.1 points per game. To be honest, he perfectly fits the mold of an ideal Bill Self combo guard. Jackson is a deft dribbler, creative shot-maker and incredibly quick and explosive.
Though Jackson is a scorer first, he is the Tigers' best playmaker and has dished out 17 assists over the last three contests. He shoots just 43 percent from the field and has had trouble with the long ball thus far this season, but is fully capable of going off for big numbers.
It's likely that Tyshawn Taylor will get the assignment of defending Jackson. Taylor has the length to bother the shorter freshman and also the necessary speed and quickness to keep up with him. Staying in front of Jackson and limiting his forays to the paint is key to diminishing his effectiveness.
Barton, a consensus top 10 recruit in the class of 2010, is probably Memphis' most naturally gifted player. Fortunately for Kansas, he's also their most inconsistent.
A legitimate 6'6'', Barton is very long and thin. Predictably, he makes up for his lack of strength with supreme athleticism, especially for a player of his height. Barton is a great leaper and very quick with or without the basketball. Though he handles the ball well, Barton is most comfortable right now camping out on the perimeter rather than driving aggressively to the rack.
Like Jackson, Barton shoots 43 percent from the field, and though his accuracy from deep is streaky at 32.5 percent, he is fully capable of hitting several threes in a matter of minutes.
Barton has as much upside as nearly any freshman in the country. He has yet to live up to it, though, and is a much easier cover for KU as a result. Morningstar will likely start on him early, and Travis Releford will get a shot at him when he comes off the bench due to his superior length. Challenging Barton's long jumpers will be huge for the Jayhawks, as he is very capable of getting hot and putting up big numbers.
The Jayhawks have had a nasty habit of allowing one player to go off for big numbers in their last two games. Rest assured that Coach Bill Self has made bucking that trend an emphasis in practice since the near loss to UCLA. If Kansas can keep Witherspoon, Jackson and Barton in check, they should have little trouble dispatching the Tigers and moving to 8-0 on the season.