As quoted via background music in the all-time classic movie, Home Alone 2: it's the most wonderful time of the year. If you're a Texas basketball fan, that is. It's the Texas Longhorns hosting the Kansas Jayhawks, for all the Big 12 marbles. And by "all the marbles," I personally guarantee you the winner of this game won't finish in 10th place in the conference.
Kansas is good enough to recently rank as the highest Big 12 team in the national polls. The Jayhawks overtook Texas for those rights, and just ceded its spot to Iowa State following a close loss in Ames. Kansas is 4-1 in conference, and 13-3 overall, while Texas is 14-4, 3-2. Tomorrow promises to be be a great barometer game for both squads.
PG - Frank Mason (5' 11", 185 lb). Kansas fans are so conditioned to witnessing highly hyped point guards initially disappoint, they must be downright ecstatic to see sophomore Frank Mason immediately grip the reins as the Jayhawks' best player. As Kansas' floor general, Mason hardly ever comes off the court (a team-high 33.1 MPG). When he can operate in space, he's a good facilitator (26.2% ast%) and a marksman from BTA (25-53, 47.2%).
SG - Wayne Selden (6 '5", 230 lb). A former McDonald's All-American, Selden played high school ball with Georges Niang and Nerlens Noel (must've been pretty decent). Out of the trio, Selden has had the worst post-prep trajectory. He is second on KU in MPG (30.3) and third in PPG (8.9) but has played himself out of lottery status with a downright dismal shooting line (.346/.348/.600). There's a school of thought that posits Selden operates best as a college 3 and has struggled adjusting to life on the perimeter. He profiles more as a wing scorer-slasher than a 3-and-D guy. It almost makes a Jayhawk fan miss having a guy like Brady Morningstar.
SF - Kelly Oubre (6' 7", 200 lb). A lot of fuss was made about Oubre's initial struggles. A former high school teammate of Cameron Ridley at Fort Bend Bush, Oubre was projected as a top 10 pick in the draft. He started the year in Bill Self's doghouse (Self cited general lack of effort) and didn't crack the 20 minute barrier until the tenth game of the season. Since then, Oubre has hushed that fuss, scoring in double-figures in 7 of his past 9. Oubre is a ridiculously good slasher and a menace in transition. He's a plus shooter BTA (19-45, 42.2%) but needs to avoid settling for out of rhythm 3's and low-percentage midrange jumpers. Oubre's length accounts for his ability to rebound (20.9% D-reb%) and generate turnovers (3.7% stl%), but he still has a ways to go on defense.
PF - Perry Ellis (6' 8", 225 lb). Ellis is a personal favorite of mine, and not just because everyone makes 40-year old man jokes about him. I loved his prep highlights and thought he was the next Chuck Hayes (and was subsequently pretty bummed when he didn't pick Kentucky). Expected to contend for Big 12 POY honors, Ellis instead stagnated and has frustrated Kansas fans in a similar vein as our Cam Ridley complaints. Some games (Tennessee, Iowa State), Ellis looks like an All-American. Others (Kentucky, Baylor), he disappears almost entirely. A pure undersized 4, Ellis has played bigger than his size next to help (Joel Embiid, Jeff Withey). This year, he's having trouble scoring efficiently (78-181, 43.1%) with the realization that he's not a primary defender/rebounder. Given the deficiencies of Kansas' starter at the 5, it's a problem.
C - Jamari Traylor (6' 8", 220 lb). Kansas is not a stout defensive team, and the most common complaint is the lack of a rim protector. Traylor tries real hard, but he's way too undersized to man the 5, particularly against teams with length like Texas. Traylor's 6.9% blk% is more opportunity than skill, and his rebounding efficiency has fallen off a cliff with more playing time. He's not likely to be on the court at the end of close games, with Self instead opting for Alexander or (to the dismay of KU fans) a 4-out lineup.
PF - Cliff Alexander (6' 8", 240 lb). This excellent Tjarks article on Alexander sums up my thoughts on him to a T. He's a questionable NBA prospect, since he doesn't have the length to be a 5 (just a 7' 2" wingspan), and he doesn't have the skill set to be a stretch 4. Push him more than 3 feet away from the basket, and he ceases being an asset. That said, Alexander has one excellent skill: jumping out and down. And not in the flailing Prince Ibeh way either; dude know what he's doing when he goes airborne. Alexander is just fifth on the team in minutes played (18.4), but leads the team in FG% (51-89, 57.3%), rebounding percentage (13.0% O, 22.2% D), and block percentage (8.2%). Kansas fans are livid that he doesn't get more run, and given the alternatives, I tend to agree. Give him three years with Bill Self, and he's probably Thomas Robinson. More likely, Alexander declares for the draft and gets lost in the shuffle, since his game doesn't really fit in the modern NBA.
SF - Brannen Greene (6' 7", 215 lb). Greene is Kansas' irrational confidence guy. He is 20-45 from BTA and 10-15 from 2-pt range. He's taken at least three 3-point shots in half of Kansas' games. Probably wise not to let him get hot from distance.
PG - Devonte Graham (6' 2", 175 lb). Graham is amazingly composed for a freshman lead guard. After a year at prep school, Graham was a late addition to KU's recruiting class, coinciding with the departure of Naadir Tharpe. Graham immediately inserted himself into the rotation, but missed a few weeks with a toe injury. He returned for conference play, and hs spells Mason as the lead guard (though Mason often stays on the court in 2-guard sets). Graham has a knack for getting to the line (42 FTA vs. 39 FGA), and is a capable BTA shooter as well (6-13, 46.2%). Don't sleep on him when he's on the court.
SF - Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (6' 8", 195 lb). Kansas' version of Ioannis Papapetrou was basically gifted to Bill Self (some backstory here). Guys like Fran Fraschilla believe the 17-year old Ukrainian has NBA star potential. Right now, the unpronounceable one is struggling to score efficiently and has barely seen the court in Big 12 play.
C - Landen Lucas (6' 10", 240 lb). Lucas is a JAG big who has more rebounds (80) than points (69) in his 1.5 years in Lawrence. Given Self's history of developing big men, it would not be at all surprising if Lucas becomes a Jeff Withey / Sasha Kaun terror by his senior year. It hasn't clicked so far.
C - Hunter Mickelson (6' 10", 245 lb). Mickelson made the ill-fated decision to transfer to Kansas after two decent years at Arkansas. He is a good defender but has zero offensive skills. Given Texas' plethora of bigs, both Lucas and Mickelson might get some run in this game solely due to size.
Keys to the Game
1. Attack the Interior. Texas' big man rotation goes 6' 11", 6' 10", 6' 9", 6' 9", 6' 8". Kansas plays really only three guys inside who are all 6' 8". Basic scientmathics says the Longhorns have a huge advantage here. Further, Isaiah Taylor seems to be getting back to 100% after initially struggling in his first few games back from a broken wrist. Frank Mason isn't the type of perimeter defender that scares Taylor into living on the perimeter, and Texas' lead guard should have a field day getting into the paint and breaking down the defense.
2. Stifle Mason, contain Oubre. The past two games, Texas picked on a couple really good but diminutive lead guards (Juwan Staten, Kyan Anderson) with an effective zone/trap defensive strategy. Kansas' offensive strength is shooting the 3, so it's much more likely Texas reverts back to M2M. Still, Mason is just 5' 11" and should be a solid test to see if Taylor has his defensive chops back. Barnes may opt to keep Demarcus Holland on Selden, but Texas' all-conference defender should get his chance at locking down Mason too. Unfortunately, Texas doesn't have an ideal cover for Oubre. I expect Oubre to get plenty of touches, but the trick with him is to highlight his inexperience. Don't let him shoot 3's in rhythm, don't give him easy cuts to the basket. If Oubre is going to score 15, make him do it inefficiently.
3. Make Kansas play 1-on-5. The coaching staff likely has cuts of the Kentucky-Kansas game on repeat (here's your friendly reminder that the Jayhawks lost by 32), especially since Texas' defensive personnel looks like a Bluegrass mirror. Kentucky tore Kansas' hi-lo offense to shreds. If Kansas' undersized bigs want to play 1-on-5 in the post, Texas should have a similar field day utilizing its superior length. Kentucky also did an amazing job cutting off passing lanes, preventing Kansas from utilizing penetration and ball movement. In frustration, Kansas guards basically started chucking the ball at the rim, hoping for a miracle. This is not the way to win basketball games.
4. Win the turnover battle. Interestingly, both teams are terrible at keeping the rock. Texas turns the ball over on 21.4% of its possessions (284th nationally); Kansas 19.2% (153rd). Also interestingly, both teams are terrible at forcing turnovers. Texas forces turnovers on just 15.9% of opponents' possessions (335th); Kansas 17.6% (281st). From a box score perspective, whichever team is better at limiting what they're terrible at stands to have a better chance at winning.
The game is on CBS at 1pm. Hopefully, it's a doozy. Hook 'em.