No. 14 Kansas Jayhawks (9-2) vs. Stanford Cardinal (6-6)
Time: 10 p.m. Thursday | Location: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, California
TV: ESPN2 | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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1. Capitalize on veteran guard play
In previewing Thursday's matchup during a phone interview with the Journal-World, Stanford coach Jerod Haase — a former Kansas player who said he would “always have great feelings about Kansas” — pointed to guard play as a potentially huge factor in this one.
With Stanford missing two veteran guards because of injury and the Jayhawks starting three guards with serious experience, the battle in the backcourt could go a long way in determining how this one goes.
Specifically, that is true of Devonté Graham in the eyes of Haase, now in his second season with Stanford.
“When you have four-year guys and seniors, they become so valuable, especially at the guard position,” he said. “(Graham's) leadership and attitude are terrific and are a big part of what that team is about. We're well aware of what he's capable of and think he's a terrific player.”
Said KU's Malik Newman of playing against young guards: “You just try to go out there, pressure them, try to heat them up and try to turn them over.”
2. All five to the glass
Although the Jayhawks have superior length and athleticism throughout their lineup, pure size is an area in which Stanford will an advantage in this one.
The Cardinal starts three players 6-foot-8 or taller and also can bring a couple of big bodies off of the bench. While none of them are as big as KU's Udoka Azubuike — 7-foot, 280 pounds — the KU center can't neutralize all of that Stanford size by himself, and will need a big-time effort from the Kansas guards on the glass to help the Jayhawks get out of California with a victory.
Stanford is outrebounding opponents by more than five boards a game, including a 41-27 edge in the team's most recent outing — a 12-point home victory over San Francisco last week.
Kansas, meanwhile, is outrebounding its opponents by more than six boards a game, making the battle on the glass a potentially huge factor in this one.
3. Get out and go
The easiest way to make Stanford uncomfortable and to put this game on a path that plays into Kansas' favor is by forcing the issue in transition.
Stanford enters Thursday's game averaging just 74 points per game — compared with 89 ppg for KU — and the Cardinal seems to much prefer a slower, more deliberate, half-court type of pace.
Five of Stanford's six wins have featured finals in the 70s and in its six losses, the Cardinal has given up an average of 86 points to opponents, meaning that if the Jayhawks can push the pace and get this one into the 80s, their odds of winning should go up tremendously.
Although he still is just in his third game back, sophomore guard Sam Cunliffe's presence on the KU bench should help the Jayhawks emphasize tempo. That's because while Cunliffe likes to fly up and down the floor himself, he also can enter the game with Marcus Garrett for a few minutes here and there to give the KU starters a rest and make sure they're fresh and ready to push the pace from start to finish.
Stanford forward Reid Travis vs. KU's defense
A year ago, Stanford big man Reid Travis set Allen Fieldhouse opponent records for free throw makes (19) and free throw attempts (22) during a 29-point outburst that no one in a Kansas uniform that day will soon forget.
“I know Reid Travis is a handful, or more than a handful,” KU coach Bill Self said of the Stanford junior. “He'll be licking his chops because we didn't defend him very well last year.”
Because Haase starts the 6-8, 245-pound Travis at power forward, KU's defensive game plan will not be as simple as trying to let 7-foot sophomore Azubuike bother him with his size.
“If you put Dok on him, then you're going to take Svi or Lagerald and put them on their starting center,” said Self of 6-9, 245-pounder Michael Humphrey. “We'll have to do a good job of trapping him and trying to front him and playing him before he catches it.”
Added Haase of the many looks he expects Kansas to throw at his talented big man this time around: “The great part about Reid is, he is fairly consistent. He's as disciplined of a person as I've ever been around and one of the most competitive, too. I don't need to work him up and get him excited about the game. He's as pro as it comes and he'll be ready.”
The infamous last game before Christmas has delivered a mixed bag of results for the Jayhawks throughout the years, and always has been one of the tougher games for Self to get maximum effort and focus from his team.
While most of the prewinter break setbacks came during Self's early years with the program — Kansas is actually 7-1 in the past eight years in the final game before break — the challenge of locking in and keeping his players' minds on the task in front of them instead of the upcoming break from practice and school and time with family, has not always been easy for Self and his coaching staff.
“We've been really good the last game before break and we've been awful,” Self said.
The lone KU loss during this recent eight-year stretch was a 25-point blowout loss at Temple in 2014. Before that, KU also dropped late December games to Arizona in 2008 and Nevada in 2003, both on the road. KU also lost to UMass on Dec. 13, 2008, in Kansas City, Mo., and Davidson in the same building on Dec. 19 three years later.
That fact, along with the recent back-to-back losses that are still fresh in the minds of the Jayhawks, have this team locked in on finishing nonconference play on a high note before a few days with friends and family and then a return to campus to get ready for the start of Big 12 play, which opens Dec. 29 at Texas.
“We need this one,” Self said. “We need to go out and play well. Usually a win before Christmas makes Christmas a lot better.”
No. 14 Kansas
G – Devonté Graham, 6-2, 185, Sr.
G – Malik Newman, 6-3, 190, Soph.
G – Svi Mykhailiuk, 6-8, 205, Sr.
G – Lagerald Vick, 6-5, 175, Jr.
C – Udoka Azubuike, 7-0, 280, Soph.
G – Daejon Davis, 6-3, 175, Fr.
G – Robert Cartwright, 6-2, 180, Jr.
F – Oscar Da Silva, 6-9, 210, Fr.
F – Reid Travis, 6-8, 245, Jr.
C – Michael Humphrey, 6-9, 245, Sr.