No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (20-3 overall, 9-1 Big 12) vs. No. 14 West Virginia Mountaineers (18-5 overall, 6-4 Big 12)
Time: 6 p.m. | Location: WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.
TV: Big 12 Now/ESPN+ | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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1. Everybody to the glass
West Virginia leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, getting back 40.4% of their own misses. That number has gone up to 42.2% in Big 12 play and not only has led to more opportunities on offense but also to a whole bunch of easy buckets and put-backs that are often uncontested.
WVU is far from an elite scoring team. KenPom.com ranks the Mountaineers just 51st in adjusted offensive efficiency and their shooting percentages are below the national average in effective field goal percentage, 2-point field goals, 3-point percentage and at the free throw line.
Those numbers make the Mountaineers’ efforts on the glass critical to their chances of winning pretty much any game they play.
WVU out-rebounded the Jayhawks 44-30 in the first meeting at Allen Fieldhouse and that included a 21-9 edge on the offensive glass.
Put another way: WVU got as many offensive rebounds as Kansas did defensive rebounds. And Kansas coach Bill Self said this week that that simply cannot happen again.
Kansas enters this one with a +6.7 rebounding edge on its opponents so far this season.
“I do think we’re getting better,” Self said of his team’s overall defense. “I don’t think we’re as good as we can be, but in order to do that you got to finish possessions and we haven’t rebounded the ball like we need to rebound the ball to be elite.”
The Jayhawks were outscored 15-4 in second-chance points in the win over West Virginia in January, and closing that gap — or eliminating it altogether — will go a long way toward making the rematch a much more manageable affair.
In order for that to happen, however, it will take more than just a strong effort from KU big men Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack against WVU forwards Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, who combined for 29 of the Mountaineers’ 44 rebounds in the first matchup.
“Both strong, both tenacious, they rebound hard, they pursue the ball hard,” McCormack said of WVU's muscle inside. “We have to be tougher than them and do a better job at rebounding as a team, not just the bigs.”
2. Defense wins
While that cliché phrase has been popular in various sports for decades, it has been particularly true with this Kansas team.
Regardless of who’s shooting well or who isn’t, how well their sets are working or aren’t, or how opposing defenses try to check Azubuike and point guard Devon Dotson, the one constant with this Kansas team — especially of late — has been their ability to lock in on defense.
Nowhere was that more evident than at the end of last weekend’s win at TCU, where KU’s lead was trimmed to 44-40 in the final few minutes and Kansas responded by playing arguably its best defensive stretch of the season.
Three consecutive steals led to easy points. Self calls those, “baskets you don’t have to earn.”
And despite having possession while trailing 44-40, the Horned Frogs did not even attempt their next shot until the score was 51-40 in KU’s favor. Even that was not an official field goal attempt, as it led to two free throws that both were missed, allowing KU to push its lead to 56-40 while running away down the stretch.
Several Jayhawks talked at length after that game, and on Monday while looking ahead to this one, about this team’s identity being tied to its defense.
But rather than that simply being the case because playing tough D is what this team does best, you’re starting to get the sense that these Jayhawks have really embraced their defensive focus and actually are starting to enjoy it.
“I think it’s just really a mindset thing,” sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji said. “It started as just the coaches kind of saying that’s how our team is going to be and us taking on that role of being a defensive team that kind of makes teams play the game that they’re not used to.”
While that approach has paid off for the Jayhawks this season, it has almost always been the focus for Bob Huggins’ teams.
In fact, tonight’s matchup is a clash of the No. 1 (KU) and No. 2-ranked teams in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings.
3. Poise from start to finish
If you’ve seen any of the KU-WVU games in Morgantown over the past several years, you likely recall what it looks like when the game gets away from the Jayhawks.
Sometimes that’s right out of the gate, with Kansas struggling to match West Virginia’s intensity and effort early and digging a hole that’s too tough to climb out of.
Other times, that has come late, with KU controlling good chunks of the game only to unravel for a late stretch that surrenders momentum and control to the home team.
Regardless of the why and how of all of that, some of KU’s best and most composed players throughout the years have melted down in the frantic moments in those West Virginia losses.
The WVU pressure and defensive style has had a lot to do with that, and while the Mountaineers did not unleash their signature “Press Virginia” look on the Jayhawks back in early January at Allen Fieldhouse, Self and company are expecting to see a lot more of it this time around.
“Regardless of who they have out there, they do a great job of hawking ball, and I think they’re pressuring and pressing more than what they did the first time we played,” Self said. “They keep bodies fresh, they hawk the ball and they’re certainly talented. They’re quick and athletic, and I think their team resembles West Virginia (of) three years ago or two years ago a lot more today than it did when we played them the first time.”
KU center Udoka Azubuike vs. West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe
Most West Virginia games, it’s the coach from the opposing team that warns that his forwards and centers will have their hands full with WVU’s phenomenal freshman forward who leads the team in points (11.5), rebounds (9.1) and shooting (58.1%).
And while history shows that could be the case with Kansas and Tshiebwe tonight, the Mountaineers likely have their share of concerns regarding KU’s own monster in the paint in Azubuike.
In the first meeting between these two teams, Tshiebwe lit up the Jayhawks for 15 points and 10 rebounds in the first half, playing harder and more active in the paint for nearly the 20 minutes of the first half.
In the second half, when Kansas figured out how better to handle him — not to mention took it as a personal challenge to slow him down — the WVU freshman scored just two points and grabbed seven rebounds while taking just two shots and fouling three times.
Those factors — forcing him to foul, putting a body on him and matching his physicality — are all key factors this time around and the Jayhawks appear to know that from the jump.
“I think so much of it depends on minutes and depends on foul issues,” Self said. “He obviously wore us out. The first half, he was by far the best player in the game. By far. But Dok was the best player in the game the second half. You’ve got to keep a body on him, you’ve got to try to keep (him) away from the basket and certainly you’ve got to keep (him) off the glass.”
McCormack agreed whole heartedly with his coach’s assessment, saying the biggest key for how to battle Tshiebwe was to “get into him early.”
It’s been 39 days since the Jayhawks and Mountaineers first faced each other this season, in the Big 12 Conference opener for both teams.
And a quick look back at that one shows that the game provided a bit of foreshadowing.
Trailing at halftime, with his team reeling from a monster first-half by Tshiebwe, Self turned to what he called his “toughest guys” to help Kansas outscore WVU 36-23 in the second half of a seven-point victory.
The five players who played the majority of those second-half minutes now make up the Jayhawks’ starting five as the teams prepare for tonight’s rematch at WVU Coliseum.
That group has started the last four games for the Jayhawks, who have outscored opponents by an average score of 68-57 during those four games.
Because of West Virginia’s size and style, Self on Monday revealed that the coaching staff was looking at ways to get more two-big-man lineups onto the floor against the Mountaineers.
“I’m not saying it will start that way,” Self said. “But, depending on foul situations, I think it would benefit us to have two bigs out there at least a larger portion of the game.”
Kansas leads the all-time series with the Mountaineers, 13-5. But that edge includes a 2-5 record in games played at WVU Coliseum.
KenPom.com, which has KU ranked No. 1 overall and West Virginia at No. 7, has Kansas pegged as a one-point favorite, with a 53% chance of winning the game.
No. 3 Kansas
G – Devon Dotson, 6-2, 185, Soph.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Soph.
G – Christian Braun, 6-6, 205, Fr.
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 195, Jr.
C – Udoka Azubuike, 7-0, 265, Sr.
No. 14 West Virginia
G – Jordan McCabe, 6-0, 188, Soph.
G – Jermaine Haley, 6-7, 215, Sr.
F – Emmitt Matthews, Jr., 6-7, 210, Soph.
F – Oscar Tshiebwe, 6-9, 258, Fr.
F – Derek Culver, 6-10, 255, Soph.