Leading up to the game on Wednesday, we had a little back and forth with our sister site Rock Chalk Talk. You can see what questions Andy had for us and David Fankhauser's (d_fankBU) answers over at their site.
PC: Kansas always schedules a tough non-conference slate, and this season hasn’t been any different. Consequently, KU has collected both quality wins and troubling loses. What’s your assessment of the team’s state right now? Are they closer to the team that beat ranked opponents in Utah and Michigan State or the one that got trounced by Kentucky and Temple?
AM: I think you can pretty much ignore the Kentucky game, because at this point, any team that Kentucky decides to play tough is going to have a hard time keeping it close. But overall, this team is frustratingly inconsistent. In basically every game, they've had stretches where they play lights out and you think they have finally put it all together, and then they go on a cold streak for 5 or 6 minutes and look like they've never played organized basketball at a competent level in their lives.
The Michigan State game had just enough good to outweigh the bad, and a little bit of luck mixed in to finish it off at the end. Utah was a huge hot streak in the first half, followed by an extended cold streak in the second half, with just enough toughness to gut it out at the end. Temple was pretty much all bad, where no one was able to get hot for an extended period of time.
Mason has come on strong recently, and Selden has shown flashes, but Perry Ellis has been struggling to get what he had last year, Alexander is lacking in consistency, and the defense has been severely lacking.
PC: During Bill Self’s first 11 seasons as head coach, Kansas was ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency in 7 seasons and in the top 25 in 10 (per KenPom), with last season being the only outlier (31st) when defensive anchor Joel Embiid had injury troubles. Heading into Wednesday’s game, KU ranks about 45th in that category. Why the (relative) defensive struggle this season? Are you worried about it? How do you think KU can improve on that end as the season progresses?
AM: To be fair, Kansas has typically started lower in the defensive ratings early in the year, as they try to integrate freshmen and transfers into Bill Self's system, but I don't think I've ever seen it this bad. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Kansas has not had a consistent rim protector on the court for huge stretches of time, and teams have been able to take advantage. This is where Alexander can be of help, with his interior defense and decent block percentage (7.9%). But Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson is likely our best hope to significantly improve the defense at the rim. Unfortunately, he has been stuck on the bench.
Ultimately, I expect the defense to settle in, especially if we can get Devonte Graham back from his toe injury. He was quickly showing himself to be one of the better perimeter defenders prior to his injury, and we have missed him much more than I thought we would.
PC: Self has a number of notable freshmen to integrate into the team. Who of Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander, Devonte Graham, and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk do you think has had the most positive impact so far? Who do you think will be most important come NCAA Tournament time?
AM: This has been hard to pick, but I think overall Cliff Alexander has had the most positive impact. This is mainly because of his ability to just flip a switch and just dominate down low. The game last week against Kent State featured a two minute stretch where he pretty much did everything: he had a block, a couple rebounds, a dunk, he dove out of bounds to save a ball, and pretty much anything else you could ask him to do.
But Oubre has come on very strong. In that same Kent State game, Oubre was lights out in the first half and kept the Jayhawks in the game with 16 points before the break. His defense has really picked up as well, and was arguably the best player on the team against UNLV.
And yet, even with those two players coming on, I think a healthy Devonte Graham will be key to a long tournament run, and even to Kansas' chances to win the Big 12 for the 11th straight year. Frank Mason has done fairly well as the point guard for this team, but this is a team that really needs two good ball-handlers on the floor as much as possible. We've tried to use Selden, but he seems to play much better when someone else can help him create his space and shot, and he hasn't been the facilitator we need. Self has even talked about using Jamari Traylor in a backup PG role, and that has been an absolute disaster so far. So getting a plus defender and ball handler back into the lineup with the ability to free Selden and Oubre up to roam and find their shot will be key to making noise in the tournament.
PC: Who is the leader of this team? If this game is close and Kansas needs a basket late, who does Self trust to beat the zone and get a basket?
AM: At this point, the two leaders of the team are still Perry Ellis and Frank Mason, for better or worse. Mason has shown the ability to create his own shot, constantly driving into the lane to make something happen. But many times, he hasn't shown the ability to recognize when he actually has something there versus when he needs to kick it out to a teammate on the wing.
Ellis is probably still the only player that can hold his own down low (except against the freakishly athletic Kentucky front line) and create his own shot in a late-game situation. He hasn't been called on to make those plays as often this year as I expected, but he definitely still has the ability.
PC: What’s your prediction for the game? Does Kansas keep Baylor off the offensive glass, or do the Bears keep themselves in this game with 2nd chance points? What do you see as the key matchup for this game?
AM: This game is going to be rough for the Jayhawks, but most of the games this year have been. The Jayhawks just haven't been able to overpower teams like we are used to seeing, and the Big 12 as a whole is going to be much better this year than anything we are used to seeing. I think both teams will be pretty active on the offensive glass, as I'm not sure how the 1-3-1 zone is going to be able to prevent anyone with any size at all from feasting below the rim. But Kansas has had issues with letting teams get offensive rebounds, and that seems to be Baylor's specialty.
That being said, I think the key matchup is going to be Kelly Oubre against the Baylor zone. Baylor tried to shut down the Oklahoma perimeter game on Saturday, and instead they got picked apart for much of the afternoon. To keep the zone honest down low, Oubre or Selden are going to have to get hot from outside, and Oubre seems to be the best equipped.
All that said, I'm having trouble seeing either team pulling away in this one. Kenpom tells me that I should expect to see a loss here (although after their prediction of a 67-64 win in the OU-UT game, I'm not sure how much trust to put into the predictions), and I have to agree since Kansas has just not looked good at all away from home this year. I'm thinking that Baylor probably wins this one by actually making a few free throws down the stretch, but not before nearly blowing the game in the process. Baylor 70, Kansas 68
Looks like we can expect a great game Wednesday night. Thanks to Andy for all that info! Be sure to head over to Rock Chalk Talk for the other side of the conversation.