College Sports

Why KU — a healthy favorite vs. Northeastern — likely isn’t thrilled with the matchup

Dedric Lawson, Devon Dotson on KU’s seed and chance of playing in KC

KU's Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson talk on March 17, 2019 about the Jayhawks' NCAA Tournament seed and the possibility of playing in Kansas City.
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KU's Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson talk on March 17, 2019 about the Jayhawks' NCAA Tournament seed and the possibility of playing in Kansas City.

This isn’t a typical Kansas team.

The Jayhawks are a 4 seed, not a 1 or 2. That means no game in the NCAA Tournament can be considered a gimme, and that includes Thursday’s opener against 13th-seeded Northeastern at around 3 p.m. Central in Salt Lake City.

Here’s the reality after a quick study of the Huskies, though: The Jayhawks probably aren’t going to like the style they’re going to have to face in the first round.

The reason is simple.

“I don’t know their personnel yet, except I know they’ve got four guys that shoot it every time that’s open,” KU coach Bill Self said. “That’s hard for us.”

This isn’t exactly a secret any more. Opponents that have attempted a high volume of threes against this KU team have generally had greater offensive success than those who haven’t.

Self’s top defensive concern, throughout his career, has been to put a priority on limiting easy baskets, which has served him well over time. His defensive principles involve lots of help and clogging the paint, though, so strong shooting opponents can sometimes cater their offenses to KU’s tendencies while creating opportunities for open and semi-guarded threes.

Honestly, it can be a smart way to play. KU’s defense has done a great job of avoiding fouls this year, and also has posted the nation’s 25th-best two-point percentage defense while playing the most difficult schedule in the country.

Northeastern’s roster is one that shouldn’t have a problem playing outside-in. The Huskies are 22nd when it comes to how frequently they shoot threes and also 14th in three-point percentage (39 percent).

“We’ll definitely have to tighten some things up,” Self said.

It’s important to not get carried away here. Predictive stats — those that evaluate each possession to give us a better look at what college basketball teams actually are — say KU is clearly better. The Jayhawks opened as an 8 1/2-point favorite, so any potential talk about Northeastern as a trendy upset pick has to be countered with the fact that the Huskies winning would, in fact, be an unlikely result.

This still, on outside appearances, is not the type of draw KU likely wanted.

Kansas coach Bill Self reacts on March 17, 2019 to the Jayhawks' No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and the possibility of playing in Kansas City.

When teams are underdogs, they go into games wanting to increase variance. In essence, Northeastern is not as good of a team as KU, so it doesn’t want an expected result; instead, it wants to play a high-risk, high-reward approach that makes the contest less predictable, thus making a win more possible.

Two of the best ways to accomplish that: Shoot a bunch of threes, and play a slow pace.

Northeastern checks both boxes, while also playing at the nation’s 252nd-fastest tempo.

There are other things for KU to worry about. If the Jayhawks counter Northeastern’s small lineup with a four-guard look of its own — that’s what KU did most of the second half against Iowa State in a 78-66 loss Saturday — then David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot’s impact could be limited. In essence, because Self might not be comfortable having Lawson chase a three-point shooter on the perimeter, he’ll have to make him the center, which further shortens KU’s rotation.

The Jayhawks, frankly, don’t have as much guard depth as they’d like for this approach. Not only does Marcus Garrett have some well-known offensive limitations, but Ochai Agbaji also remained in a funk during Saturday’s Big 12 championship game with just five points in 21 minutes.

Quentin Grimes has been more reliable lately, and Devon Dotson will play a bunch no matter what. But if even one of Garrett or Agbaji is off, suddenly Self must turn to Charlie Moore or go back to two bigs, the latter coming with the hope that his team doesn’t get buried by a barrage of threes.

Here’s one positive for KU: There’s some time to prepare. Wofford was the best three-point shooting team the Jayhawks faced this year, and with three days to plan, KU was able to limit the Terriers to 26 three-point attempts and five makes in a 72-47 home win on Dec. 4.

KU, in essence, could be looking at a scenario where it will want to change up its basic defensive principles while also playing a primary four-guard lineup — a setup that has been the backup plan for the better part of the last month.

This doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will lose. And it doesn’t mean they can’t win in a blowout either.

It’s probably just not the way Self would’ve wanted this one to look.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.
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