March Madness 2013: Kansas vs. Michigan preview

Ed Zurga

Two SBN team bloggers exchanged e-mails this week to talk about Ben McLemore, Trey Burke and the clash of two storied programs in Cowboys Stadium on Friday.

Zach Travis is a contributing writer for Maize 'n Brew, SBNation's Michigan blog, while Owen covers Kansas basketball for Rock Chalk Talk.

Travis: I watched long stretches of Kansas' first two games, and I have to say I'm worried. Looking at KenPom's numbers for Kansas heightens that. I'd have to believe you feel pretty confident in the match-up given the strength of Kansas inside and the weakness Michigan has shown during the year.

Owen: Confident? Far from it. This Kansas team has some serious offensive deficiencies that were once again exposed this weekend. Our guard play isn't great and Ben McLemore pulled a bit of a disappearing act which was a concern. That alone has me worried because Michigan isn't going to let us off the hook. I think we were fortunate to get through the first weekend and playing as a top seed in Kansas City was a huge part of that.

So based on this weekend, I think the defensive issues of Michigan will be somewhat less of a concern unless this Kansas team flips a switch and plays loose. There are times where they look good and can exploit the interior, but they still need to find a way to get more from the back-court. I am optimistic about the rebounding piece, but that only becomes a major game changer if we can keep Michigan's offense in check. Short answer, the eyeball test has me far from confident after this weekend.

From your standpoint, what do you think it was about the opening two rounds that allowed Michigan to look so good and is Mitch McGary ready to take the next step inside? He certainly looked the part and I love his attitude as a player.

Travis: I think Michigan's performance over the first weekend is attributable to three things. First, the match-ups really favored the Wolverines in hindsight. South Dakota State was an interesting upset pick because of Nate Wolters, but if you look into the stats, the Jackrabbits were very much a clone of Michigan. They were a good offensive squad heavily dependent on an NBA-caliber point guard to score and create opportunities for his supporting cast. That's the thing with this Michigan team, if you try to beat it on its own terms you aren't going to win because Michigan is too good at getting up and down the court and too smart about when to attack on offense and when to pull back.

Trey Burke isn't just a great scorer and passer; he is capable of dictating pace and catching the opposing team off guard. In the second round, when VCU tried to attack Michigan's best attribute (ball control), the Wolverines were able to completely neutralize the press and force VCU to win with half court offense and transition defense. Another case of Michigan playing its game and forcing the other team out of its comfort zone.

Of course, Mitch McGary was a huge part of this, and if Michigan is going to challenge Kansas, McGary is going to have to continue to stake a strong claim to the paint. For Michigan's guards to go ham, as the kids say, the Wolverines need someone on the inside to do the dirty work, get second chance points, and capitalize when defenses collapse. However, McGary barely played in the regular season finale against Indiana because of foul trouble and he still hasn't shown himself capable of neutralizing someone like Jeff Withey. This is going to be a big statement game for the freshman.

Finally, I think Michigan's first weekend romp was a big case of a team hitting its stride at the right time because of circumstance. The Big Ten season was a slog through a series of physical beat-downs and low paced possession wars against teams intimately familiar with John Beilein's style and this year's team. It was easy to see Michigan's flaws exploited in that atmosphere because every other game seemed like another attempt at writing a blueprint for slowing the Wolverines down.

All of this is the long way of me saying that I'm worried that Michigan is about to be thrust back into the heart of Big Ten season against a big, physical team that will work the ball inside and challenge Michigan's deficient two-point defense. If Michigan wins this one it won't be because the Wolverines manage to force Kansas to win on Michigan's terms, but that Michigan finds a way to win with Kansas dictating the terms of the game.

With that being said, what is it about Kansas that makes the Jayhawks such a strong inside-out team? They have the 17th best 2pt% and are in KenPom's top 100 in FTA/FGA, OR%, and Block%. Is it all size or does tempo have something to do with it? Most importantly, what do you think of the Self-Beilein match up in this one?

Owen: Kansas has always been a very good half-court team under Bill Self. The struggles this year have come when we don't attack in the half court and we're content to pass or dribble around the perimeter until we take a contested three. Moving the ball quickly, working it inside and staying active leads to open looks for this team and a lot of good looks in the paint. Throw in the fact that this team does finish at a high rate in transition and I think that's where you're seeing such a high two-point FG%.

The offensive rebounding and blocked shots can be attributed to Jeff Withey's emergence as another in a consistent string of solid Kansas big men. He changes things on the inside, alters shots and is just an extremely talented shot blocker. His timing is great, he doesn't foul a lot and he's very active. Throw in a pesky Kevin Young, who is sort of the obnoxious energy guy, as well as a good sized group of guards, and you have a team that is savvy and well built for playing the game inside out.

All that said, I think you have the personnel to perhaps capitalize on his stubbornness and belief in strong help defense. Self won't look to pressure or completely slow things down, but he also isn't one to put a guy on an island defensively. Kansas will help to stop dribble penetration, which can leave shooters open and they will look to contest a player driving for a bucket, which opens up passing lanes underneath. It's a game of percentages and Self tends to play those. However, a team with what I perceive to be Beilein's style can capitalize on those tendencies and win.

So flipping that back to you, what exactly makes Michigan hard to prepare for and what is Beilein's style? And to follow that up, we have essentially a very good offense and a very good defense on the court when Michigan has the ball and mediocrity on both sides when Kansas has the ball. What has been the most successful offensive plan of attack against the Wolverines?

Travis: Michigan's style rests on letting the guards attack the paint on dribble drives, pick-and-rolls, and transition opportunities and allowing that to open up the rest of the offense. Trey Burke has an unbelievably quick first step, and his ability to attack the basket despite his height makes me think of Allen Iverson. Burke isn't afraid to go hard at the bucket, and he is just slippery enough to get his shot off against most shot blockers.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is also a good slasher that can get to the basket and score. With these two working off a variety of picks and perimeter passes designed to open up lanes, Michigan likes to attack the paint in an effort to draw help defense and open up the wings for open threes and post players for easy layups on the backside. When Michigan's guards can get into the lane with impunity, this is a very hard offense to stop.

When Michigan has issues getting into the lane, the offense struggles. Teams during the Big Ten season used a lot of hard hedges and ball pressure on Burke to try and keep him from getting in the lane, and when he did they refused to sag off shooters on the outside. When this happens Michigan becomes a perimeter based team that's natural inclination is to jack up contested threes and pull-up 18 footers. This goes about how you would imagine.

When Stauskas and Robinson aren't the beneficiaries of the easy dump off passes, they struggle finding their own shot. If Kansas is comfortable letting Burke work unimpeded at the top of the key and sagging defenders off the shooters on the wings, Michigan's offense should be able to efficiently score. That will go double if Michigan's defense can capitalize on turnovers and defensive rebounds, leading to fast break opportunities where Burke can distribute to a talented group of full-court finishers.

Which leads to my next question: what is up with Ben McLemore? It looks like he has been quiet the last few games. What element does he add to the offense and what's been his issue these last few games? Furthermore, where is the weakness when it comes to KU's offense?

Owen: McLemore is the guy that has the ability to go for 30+ on any given night. He's an incredibly smooth offensive player, the kind that makes the amazing look routine. The problem is, he seems to bottle up a little bit when the pressure is on. Last weekend he disappeared and was overwhelmed by the moment. That said, he was showing aggressiveness against Carolina, it just wasn't happening.

Kansas will look to get him involved early and often. I'm not sure they can afford another weekend where he remains silent, but there are others that stepped up in his absence last week. I've never seen the team react with fear when things aren't going his way so I think that's a positive. Bottom line, Kansas can win without him, they just stand a MUCH better chance of winning with him hitting his stride. I mean the guy is a top five NBA pick and we sat him for about 11 minutes against UNC because he just didn't have it.

Overall, the offensive issue is that we are a collection of solid senior role players. This isn't a super star team; this is a group of guys that supported Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor on a run to the national title game last year. They are very good; they just don't have a go to guy outside of perhaps McLemore. Much of that stems from weak guard play on the offensive end and less production at the 4 position. Kansas has gone through offensive droughts all year at times. The only good news is that this team knows they have to play great defense to win and they're mature enough to buy into that mentality.

Travis: McLemore is certainly the X-factor in this one, as I can't see Michigan getting the win if he is having a really good night. And while you are certainly underwhelmed with KU's offense this year, I don't know how much that matters. Michigan has looked good on defense the past two games, but both teams played into the Wolverine's hands. SDSU was cold most of the game and VCU's press was neutralized, robbing the team of havoc induced transition baskets, its best offensive weapon. Michigan hasn't really shut down an offense since it played Michigan State early in the month and that was at home with the Spartans shooting poorly from the field.

McLemore is the X-factor in this one, as I can't see Michigan winning if he is having a really good night

The best game-plan against Michigan is to work the ball inside-out. Try to establish a scoring presence in the post, not that tough considering Michigan's lagging 2pt defense, and let that open up opportunities elsewhere. That will force the Wolverines to play a lot of help defense inside, which will open up shots all over the court. The first game against Michigan State went a lot like this, with the Spartans going heavily into Derrick Nix who tore Michigan's defense apart. If Withey gets going quick, Michigan will be in big trouble.

Once Kansas is working the ball into the post, it should get a lot of make-able shots at the rim. If these are falling and Kansas is doing a good job collecting its misses, Michigan could be in trouble, as they feed off the transition game for a lot of quick runs and easy baskets. A lot of these opportunities come off rebounds (McGary is an excellent outlet passer) for the simple reason that Michigan's defense doesn't force a lot of turnovers (just 18.8 percent of possessions).

That is why I am so worried about Kansas: the team is built well to take advantage of Michigan's weaknesses. Solid defense, good rebounding on both ends, and an offensive post presence that can attack Michigan inside. Big Ten teams have been doing this all year and having good success with it. Hell, even Penn State beat Michigan by going heavily at the Wolverines inside the arc, not turning the ball over and not allowing Michigan's transition game to create a lot of runs.

With that being said, do you have any final thoughts about the game? KenPom has Michigan winning by one with 51 percent certainty, so this is about as close to a toss up as you can get. Still, I see Kansas with the distinct advantage, and if I was a betting man I would say the Jayhawks not only cover the 1.5, but win comfortably. Michigan played hot last weekend and will need to be even more dialed in offensively (and defensively) to keep up with this Kansas squad.

Owen: I guess my final thought has to be a homerish statement because I can't pick against my own team. I think Kansas finds a groove offensively after the struggles last weekend and plays a little more loose since all the talking heads seem to be writing them off now and giving the edge to Michigan. I'll say Kansas by six.

At the same time, there is no question in my mind that every game from here on out is a toss up and these are good programs and good teams, that's why they've made it this far. I wouldn't be shocked either way by the outcome and I'd hardly consider it an upset if Michigan were to win. I'd be able to walk away from the season a happy man provided we give it a good game. There are two good teams taking the floor Friday night. It's going to be a good one.

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