Utah is Playing in Kansas and I have Questions

When a Pac-12 school schedules a game against the Kansas Jayhawks, I’m going to pay attention. But, because I’m the preeminent Pac-12 blogger, I need some help. I can’t know this conference and, say, the Valley. So I brought the questions to Brian Goodman,  the lead writer for Rush The Court’s Big 12 microsite. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

Questions and answers:

Kentucky made Kansas look really, really small and lots of other things. But Kansas isn’t actually that team. They’re quite good, right? What does this team do that makes them elite?

The Kentucky drubbing still sticks out in a lot of people’s minds, but Kansas has played six games against strong competition since then, and they’ve come out victorious every single time. That doesn’t mean I would call Kansas elite just yet, but they’re getting there. The biggest development in that time has been Frank Mason’s emergence at the point guard spot, which was one of the team’s biggest questions going in. Perry Ellis has been reliable as expected, but after him, it’s been a balanced attack with anyone from Wayne Selden to Cliff Alexander to even Brannen Greene chipping in. It’s also helped that Kansas’ defense, which was uncharacteristically vulnerable last season, has tightened up as of late – the Jayhawks’ last three opponents each failed to score more than one point per possession. They aren’t elite, but apart from Kentucky and Duke, who is right now?

So Jakob Poeltl has exploded onto the scene as an international sensation. He’s like an auto-double-double, an athletic seven-footer, and a commentator’s nightmare (Poeltl rhymes with turtle – who knew?). But he might not be the most surprising foreigner on the floor: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk starts in the Jayhawk backcourt. Who is he?

Bill Self was tipped off to Mykhailiuk very late in the recruiting calendar, at last season’s Final Four. He’s an intriguing player for many reasons: He has international experience with his native Ukraine, but with Kansas, he’s a two-guard despite being listed at 6’8” (though that may be generous). On top of that, he’s very young, having just turned 17 in June. He’s mostly been a three-point shooter this season, but he’s shown the ability to drive as long as he doesn’t get bumped on the way to the rim. He’s a work in progress, but with 32 minutes of action against Michigan State, he’s shown that he can be a difference-maker against good competition, too. From an impact standpoint, the biggest difference between Poeltl and Mykhailiuk is that Self has enough depth to sit Mykhailiuk when he isn’t playing well, so while he isn’t as important on an everyday basis as Poeltl is to Utah, he could be the X-Factor the Jayhawks need to make a deep run in March.

Should the Fieldhouse Jayhawk be bigger or larger?

That thing was a behemoth years before it became trendy to turn courts into canvases.

Brandon Taylor and Delon Wright are forming one of the tougher backcourts on the West Coast. They’re one of the strong suits of the Utes. Meanwhile, point guard has seemingly been a question mark for the Jayhawks. Who will be drawing the primary duties of guarding and attacking the Ute backcourt?

Entering the season, the point guard battle came down to Frank Mason and freshman Devonte’ Graham, but as I alluded to earlier, a nice start from Mason coupled with a nagging shoulder injury for Graham has given the sophomore a clear edge. Mason is no Sherron Collins, but he has a ton of confidence in his driving ability, and the odds are you’ll see that swing both ways tomorrow. As a distributor, he’s fortunate in that the guy he needs to feed the most (Ellis) can create his own shot, but Mason is a solid enough passer. He’s also shown improvement as a defender, forcing Big East Preseason POY D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera into a 3-15 shooting night at home the other night. Wright will present a kind of challenge Mason hasn’t really seen, though, so I’ll be very interested to see how that matchup shakes out.

Bill Self (how good is he?) has been famous for his transition offense. This year, however, the Jayhawks are getting just 16% (as compared to greater than 21% the last three years) of their offense in transition. Is this a strategic shift, a byproduct of slower opposition in the early goings ons, or the steady decline in steal rate?

I think those could all be factors, but more than anything else, I think it’s simply been a difference in personnel. Kansas has never been hugely reliant on transition offense; They’ll push when they have numbers, but Self’s offenses have always been dependent on ball movement and clearing space to either deliver a pass into the post or drive. That being said, in previous years, the transition game received big lifts from Jeff Withey and Joel Embiid, who excelled at keeping blocked shots inbounds, which led to numerous transition opportunities, but it wasn’t the team’s bread and butter. This year, Kansas doesn’t have that kind of rim protector to start those runouts, but it hasn’t really hurt them outside of the Kentucky game.

Utah does a great job of protecting the rim. Is Kansas more equipped to attack this strength or avoid it (aka shoot over it)?

You should expect to see Kansas try to attack inside. Ellis has surprising range for a big man, but this isn’t a very good jump-shooting team and they don’t shoot many threes, despite Brannen Greene’s barrage the other night. Their MO is to get Ellis and Alexander the ball and let them operate, though Alexander relies a lot on brute force and athleticism than the craftier Ellis. If Ellis can stretch out the Utah frontcourt, you could see some cutting lanes emerge for Mason and Graham, with forward Landen Lucas sealing off the paint to keep help defenders out of the equation.

Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, and Cliff Alexander are the “big names” on this year’s team. But – for example – Brannen Greene goes off for 19 in DC to beat Georgetown. It was 60% of his scoring output for the season. Who are some of those guys to keep an eye on?

Mason has been a steady scorer as well, so it will be important for Utah’s defense to contain him. For the reasons I detailed above, I don’t think Greene will repeat his performance from Wednesday, but it’s possible. I’m not as high on Kelly Oubre as many seem to be, but he got his biggest workload of the year against Georgetown after spending most of the season tethered to the bench, and Self was quoted after the game saying that he’s going to start looking for more opportunities to play him, so we’ll see how that goes. Really, when it comes down to it, Kansas recruits the best players in the country, so it would never be a total shock to see anyone go off in a given game (with the exception of Lucas and Jamari Traylor, who weren’t as highly-touted). It just shouldn’t be expected.

My ex-girlfriend’s mom was convinced – convinced – Bill Self wore a toupe. Thoughts?

We may never know for sure, but your ex-girlfriend’s mom is hardly the first to have this thought.

How might Utah win this game? Can they win this game?

Despite Kansas’ improvement over the last three weeks, they aren’t impervious. I talked a little bit about the backcourt matchup and I’m excited to see Wright, but I think Utah’s best chance of winning involves a lot of touches for Poeltl, for a couple reasons. First, Ellis’ defense still leaves a lot to be desired, so he’s going to need some help. One of the reasons why Alexander hasn’t played as much as his recruiting rankings would lead you to believe is because Self is leery of him getting into early foul trouble. Poeltl has four inches on the freshman and defenders have really had a tough time containing him, and I can see that being the case with both Ellis and Alexander. I look for Poeltl to draw a lot of attention, which should open up opportunities for Wright and Taylor. If they stick to that plan, I think they can hang with Kansas and even beat them if they get a few breaks.

One thought on “Utah is Playing in Kansas and I have Questions

  1. While I adore you–and always will, I admit that I have little (zero) interest in Pac 12 Basketball…or any basketball for that matter, really. But Steve saw this article and said, “Shelly, you need to read this!” I of course said, “Steve, just give me the highlights…I promise, I do not care what it says.” He said, “Just read it.” Adam, you are too funny. I am right…more that convinced. I am CONVINCED. Great article. XOXO

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