2012 Final Four: Previewing The Kansas Jayhawks, Beautifully Ugly Winners

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 25: Travis Releford #24 and Thomas Robinson #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrate in the final second against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Midwest Regional Final at Edward Jones Dome on March 25, 2012 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kansas plays an uglier style of ball than they have in years past, but they have also advanced to their first Final Four since their 2008 national title. Can they work some more late-game magic and take out Ohio State for the second time in 2011-12?

Their best free throw shooter might be their 7-foot center. They don't have a single 40-percent shooter from 3-point range. They are quite turnover-prone, and they don't force turnovers nearly as well as in years past. They are thin, with only one bench player averaging even 12 minutes per game. They give up a lot more open 3-pointers than they have in previous years.

They are the Kansas Jayhawks, and they are two games from the national title.

Bill Self's 31-6 Jayhawks play an uglier brand of basketball this season than in years past, but they have also advanced further than prettier, deeper, more talented Kansas teams in the tournament. A skeptic could write their Final Four appearance off at least partially because of luck -- they beat three double-digit seeds (two by just three points each) and a North Carolina squad missing its heart-and-soul point guard; but the skeptic would be missing the simple fact that there is an art to knowing how to win ugly, how to survive and advance, and this Kansas team has mastered that art. They may take chances and fail, they may give up a few open shots, they may suffer some glitches in ball control, but when they need a stop, they get it. And when they need a basket, they get it.

Now winners of eight straight Big 12 titles (including four straight solo titles), Kansas was given modest expectations at the beginning of the season after losing Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Mario Little, Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar (also known as "almost their entire starting lineup") to either the pros, graduation, or both. But betting against a streak is never tremendously smart, and while conference co-favorite Texas A&M suffered through a snake-bitten season and finished 14-18, the Jayhawks just won. They occasionally looked great (they beat Baylor by 18 and 14 points), and they occasionally suffered lapses on the road (they lost to Iowa State and Missouri in back-to-back road trips), but most of the time they just won, by any means necessary. The survival instinct was still intact as they got late stops to beat Purdue in the Round of 32 and held off a late charge to beat N.C. State in the Sweet 16; and after letting North Carolina get within 68-67 with four minutes left in their Elite Eight matchup, all they did was outscore the Tar Heels, 12-0, down the stretch.

Kansas (31-6)


KU
Opp.
Pace (No. of Possessions)
66.3
Points Per Possession (PPP)
1.12 0.93
Points Per Shot (PPS)
1.34 1.11
2-PT FG% 53.3% 40.0%
3-PT FG% 34.5% 33.7%
FT% 69.1% 71.5%
True Shooting % 56.7% 48.2%




KU Opp.
Assists/Gm 15.2 11.2
Steals/Gm 7.4 6.5
Turnovers/Gm 13.0 13.8
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO
1.75 1.28




KU Opp.
Expected Off. Rebounds/Gm 11.4 13.1
Offensive Rebounds/Gm 11.5 10.7
Exp. Rebounding Margin +2.5

Every time I write about Kansas basketball, I inevitably begin to gush about their field goal percentage defense. When your team plays Kansas, you will inevitably begin to complain about how either a) your team is missing open shot after open shot! or b) your team is just passing the ball around the perimeter and not attacking! Or, potentially, both, at different points in the same game. This is by design, of course. They give you the shots they know you can't make, they crowd the players to whom they know they cannot allow space, and they always have an extra foul-giver (official term) on the court to add a physical presence and/or keep stars out of foul trouble. They play nearly perfect team defense, as they almost always have under Bill Self.

(This year's foul-givers: Kevin Young and Justin Wesley, who commit a combined 3.5 fouls in 20.2 incredibly important minutes and keep Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey out of peril.)

Even though they are giving up a few more open 3-pointers this year than normal, they are still a stout, sound defensive team that forces bad looks and cleans up the glass. Ohio State will very much test them in this regard, of course.

Ken Pomeroy Stats

KU Offense vs OSU Defense Ranks

KU Offense OSU Defense Advantage
Efficiency 16 2 Push
Effective FG% 37 56 Push
Turnover % 113 60 OSU
Off. Reb. % 75 2 OSU
FTA/FGA 67 31 OSU
OSU Offense vs KU Defense Ranks

OSU Offense KU Defense Advantage
Efficiency 7 4 Push
Effective FG% 50 6 KU
Turnover % 30 158 OSU Big
Off. Reb. % 34 52 Push
FTA/FGA 117 103 Push

Where the Jayhawks are weakest

This Kansas team does have more weaknesses than recent squads, particularly on the offensive end. They have players who can get hot from 3-point range -- Tyshawn Taylor, Conner Teahan, Elijah Johnson -- but they rank just 152nd overall in the category because none of those players have consistently found paydirt. Meanwhile, their guards aren't actually very good at free throws (Taylor and Johnson have combined to make just 68 percent of their freebies), leading to a FT% ranking of just 176th. And while it has improved, their ball-handling has left something to be desired.

On defense, they are almost as sound as always, but they have allowed a few more good looks from 3-point range, and they rank just 143rd in Def. 3PT%. (They also rank 286th in Def. FT%, which means they probably foul guards a bit too much. And if you've watched the risks that Taylor and Johnson take on both ends of the court, this makes sense.)

The Jayhawks also rank just 309th in Bench Minutes, but aside from Louisville, nobody in the Final Four has a deep bench.

Where they are best

How does one cope with average 3-point shooting? How about by making every 2-pointer! Thanks mostly to Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, Kansas ranks 13th in Off. 2PT%. Plus, they rank well in just about every defensive category not named "Def. 3PT%." They hold opponents to the lowest 2PT% in the country, and they rank ninth in Block Rate. They are also quite experienced, with juniors and seniors playing 93 percent of their primary rotation minutes.

Kansas Season to Date

  • Wins Versus Top 100 Teams (Team Rank is from KenPom.com)
    No. 2 Ohio State, 78-67
    vs. No. 7 North Carolina, 80-67
    No. 10 Missouri, 87-86 (OT)
    vs. No. 13 Georgetown, 67-63
    No. 17 Baylor, 92-74
    at No. 17 Baylor, 68-54
    vs. No. 21 Purdue, 63-60
    No. 25 Kansas State, 67-49
    at No. 25 Kansas State, 59-53
    No. 28 Iowa State, 82-73
    at No. 31 Texas, 69-66
    No. 31 Texas, 73-63
    vs. No. 34 N.C. State, 60-57
    No. 36 Long Beach State, 88-80
    vs. No. 45 UCLA, 72-56
    No. 49 South Florida, 70-42
    No. 95 Oklahoma State, 81-66
    at No. 95 Oklahoma State, 70-58
  • Losses
    vs. No. 1 Kentucky, 65-75
    at No. 10 Missouri, 71-74
    vs. No. 17 Baylor, 72-81
    vs. No. 20 Duke, 61-68
    at No. 28 Iowa State, 64-72
    vs. No. 67 Davidson, 74-80

As are most Final Four teams at this point, Kansas is quite battle-tested, especially when it comes to neutral court games. They have played nine Top 100 opponents on neutral courts and gone 5-4. In the games listed above, they have gone 6-2 in games decided by six points or less; aside from their trip to Columbia, MO, where they held a nine-point lead with two minutes left before falling, they have overcome whatever free throw issues they have, and they typically close well. To put it lightly, that is probably a good thing since the Ohio State game is almost guaranteed to be close down the stretch.

Kansas Player Stats

Player AdjGS*/Gm GmSc/Min Line
Thomas Robinson (6'10, 237, Jr.) 17.5 0.55 31.6 MPG, 17.7 PPG (51% 2PT, 50% 3PT, 68% FT), 11.8 RPG (2.8 OFF), 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.7 TOPG
Tyshawn Taylor (6'3, 185, Sr.) 13.6 0.41 33.2 MPG, 16.7 PPG (53% 2PT, 39% 3PT, 68% FT), 4.7 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 3.5 TOPG
Jeff Withey (7'0, 235, Jr.) 12.6 0.52 24.4 MPG, 9.2 PPG (55% 2PT, 79% FT), 6.2 RPG (2.1 OFF), 3.5 BPG, 1.2 TOPG
Travis Releford (6'6, 207, Jr.) 9.3 0.30 30.8 MPG, 8.5 PPG (59% 2PT, 31% 3PT, 64% FT), 4.2 RPG (1.6 OFF), 1.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 TOPG
Elijah Johnson (6'4, 195, Jr.) 9.3 0.29 32.2 MPG, 10.0 PPG (56% 2PT, 34% 3PT, 70% FT), 3.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.8 TOPG
Conner Teahan (6'6, 212, Sr.) 4.4 0.21 21.2 MPG, 5.7 PPG (50% 2PT, 34% 3PT, 84% FT), 2.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 TOPG
Kevin Young (6'8, 185, Jr.) 4.1 0.36 11.4 MPG, 3.6 PPG (51% 2PT, 67% FT), 2.9 RPG (1.3 OFF)
Justin Wesley (6'9, 220, So.) 1.0 0.12 8.8 MPG, 1.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG
Naadir Tharpe (5'11, 170, Fr.) 0.2 0.04 5.5 MPG, 0.9 PPG

* AdjGS = a take-off of the Game Score metric (definition here) accepted by a lot of basketball stat nerds. It redistributes a team's points based not only on points scored, but also by giving credit for assists, rebounds (offensive & defensive), steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls. It is a stat intended to determine who had the biggest overall impact on the game itself, instead of just how many balls a player put through a basket.

  • Highest Usage%: Robinson (30%), Taylor (27%), Withey (18%), Johnson (18%)
  • Highest Floor%: Withey (45%), Releford (44%), Robinson (41%), Taylor (41%)
  • Highest %Pass: Johnson (65%), Taylor (58%), Releford (53%), Teahan (48%)
  • Highest %Shoot: Robinson (41%), Teahan (39%), Withey (37%), Young (32%)
  • Highest %Fouled: Withey (24%), Robinson (16%), Young (13%), Releford (11%)
  • Highest %T/O: Robinson (9%), Young (9%), Withey (8%), Teahan (8%)

There are certainly some turnover issues on this team. Robinson and Withey combine for 3.9 turnovers per game; Robinson is such a strong runner that his horse gallops are guaranteed to earn him a travel or two per game, but you can overcome turnovers on the interior if your guards are good with the ball. Kansas' guards have been hit-or-miss. Tyshawn Taylor had some devastating games earlier in the season -- 11 turnovers versus Duke, seven versus Ohio State, eight versus Kansas State, six versus Missouri -- and it has never completely left him. He committed a combined eight turnovers versus N.C. State and North Carolina. But he is a streak scorer, and if he can just balance assists and turnovers, things typically work out well for Kansas.

Prognosis

I originally picked Kansas to make the national title game, partially because of their draw, and partially because this team really has shown the ability to gut out tough wins. Players like Taylor and Johnson get them into trouble, then get them out of it. They still have almost a 50-50 chance of taking out Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have looked as good to me as anybody in the tournament thus far, so I give OSU a slight edge. Still, making the Final Four in what was supposed to be a down season is a hell of an accomplishment, and once you get here, fate begins to take over.

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