Kansas certainly has the talent to win a championship, and since Self loosened the reins on the offense, KU has morphed into a team that takes advantage of its perimeter dominance (four Jayhawks make 40 percent or more of their three point attempts). Coupled with a stout defense that doesn’t yield many points within the arc and KU should make the Final Four. But it won’t be easy.
The winner of California-Maryland could offer the first scare in the South region.
The Terps have stumbled late in Big Ten play, but Melo Trimble is still Melo Trimble, morphing into more of a pure point guard (assisting on nearly 30 percent of his possessions) with a dynamic offensive game. California is the region’s dark horse, a No. 4 seed with the athletic Jaylen Brown at power forward who will be a difficult matchup for either Wayne Selden or Perry Ellis. Coupled with Ivan Rabb’s ability to connect from outside the paint — roughly half of his shots in the halfcourt are two-point field goals (away from the rim), and he makes 42 percent of those — and that will create seams in KU’s half-court defense.
If Kansas gets past the Sweet 16, Wichita State presents the next challenge — should the shockers somehow emerge ahead of No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 Miami. This would be a reprise of the 2015 second-round contest Kansas lost. The Shockers are a very difficult matchup and while this squad isn’t as offensively explosive as a year ago, its defense ranks atop Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rating (0.89 points per possession allowed). Wichita State also forces a high volume of turnovers (23 percent) and also keeps opponents from securing additional possessions (23 percent defensive rebounding rate, the best ever for a Gregg Marshall-coached WSU team). The Shockers could again end Kansas’ season.
If Kansas manages to escape the region the surprising team that might present the biggest Final Four challenge may be Texas A&M. The Aggies have length throughout its lineups, and Tyler Davis, who grabs 14 percent of the team’s misses, will be a challenge on the offensive glass. The Aggies have a grinding offense that relies on Danuel House, a streaky shooter, and Jalen Jones to convert on the interior. But A&M’s defense forces a high percentage of turnovers, which has been a problem for KU’s backcourt throughout 2016. The Jayhawks rank among the bottom third of the bracket in terms of giveaways.
There are four teams that could cause issues in the final: Kentucky and North Carolina from the East and Michigan State and Utah from the Midwest. With Alex Poythress back in the lineup, Kentucky’s frontcourt has been strengthened on the defensive glass. He is also difficult to cover with a single defender when Derek Willis — who made 40 percent of his threes in the SEC tournament — is on the court.
Utah’s Jacob Poeltl has enjoyed an All-America type season, but hasn’t gotten the subsequent recognition. His passing vision (13.4 assist rate) could cause the Kansas defense to shift throughout the halfcourt and keep the Jayhawks off balance.
Michigan State and North Carolina, though, are playing some of the best basketball the land right now.
The Spartans proved during the Big Ten tournament that they aren’t dependent on Bryn Forbes’ perimeter touch, and as we’ve learned in past NCAA tournaments, it’s unwise to bet against Tom Izzo and his coaching staff. Sparty doesn’t force turnovers — like none, 14.2 defensive turnover rate — but Michigan State gives opponents fits attempting to score in the halfcourt. Only two other Division I squads have a lower effective field goal percentage allowed than the Spartans’ 41.6 percent.
The Tar Heels have decided to go small in recent games, and have benefited from the lineup switch:
And what helps UNC in a potential title game is that the Heels aren’t hamstrung when Marcus Paige struggles. Joel Berry was arguably the best player during the ACC tournament — he converted a whopping 70 percent of his threes — and Brice Johnson is the most difficult front-court defensive assignment. Keeping him in check could force Kansas to go deep into its bench. If Johnson continues to hand out assists like he did against Virginia, he is even more challenging to contain.
Kansas isn’t a weak top overall seed, but its path will have a handful of stumbling blocks. That it won’t see any obstacles during the first weekend is probably the best any team can hope for in the bracket.
The Jayhawks could very well claim the title, but if they were to fall short, it will likely be one of the teams above that will trip them up.
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