No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (23-3 overall, 12-1 Big 12) vs. No. 1 Baylor (24-1 overall, 13-0 Big 12)
Time: 11 a.m. Saturday | Location: Ferrell Center, Waco, Texas
TV: ESPN | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
Log on to KUsports.com for our live game blog coverage and follow the KUsports.com staff on Twitter: @KUSports @mctait @bentonasmith @SJacksonLJW & @ByBradenShaw
1. Get Azubuike the ball in good spots
One of the areas where Kansas struggled in the first meeting with Baylor was getting big man Udoka Azubuike the ball in the post.
In addition to scoring just 6 points, Azubuike attempted just six shots and many of KU’s attempts to get the ball to him in the post ended up as turnovers, with Baylor baiting the passes and jumping in front of them when they were thrown.
Part of the reason that was so easy to do was (a) because Kansas had not seen much of that style from Baylor before (think Scott Drew’s zone defense) and (b) because Azubuike had a tendency to sit in the same spots on the block, trying to catch the ball where he wanted it rather than where he had room to operate.
Since then, the Kansas senior has been sensational in the post, both as a scorer and a patient passer when scoring opportunities haven’t immediately been there.
Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson said the Jayhawks’ game plan this time around was to get Azubuike moving more, therein making his offensive approach less predictable and harder to defend.
One reason the Jayhawks believe they’ll have more success this time around is because the improved passing of the KU guards in recent weeks.
“We’re doing a better job now,” Azubuike said Thursday. “Coach has really been emphasizing that, and we’ve put in different plays for ways to get the ball into the post.”
A few numbers to consider that are directly tied to Azubuike’s success in the paint: Per KenPom.com, KU ranks 11th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Jayhawks are 18th nationally in effective field goal percentage (54.6) and also rank 55th nationally in 2-point field goal percentage (55.1).
If they get close to those numbers in this one, against KenPom’s third-ranked defense no less, it will likely mean Azubuike got the ball where he needed it and also will go a long way toward increasing KU’s chances of victory.
2. No live-ball turnovers
Turnovers are a big key in every game that every basketball team plays. But they’re particularly important in this game for two reasons.
No. 1, KU turned it over 15 times and surrendered 21 points off those turnovers in the first meeting with Baylor, a 67-55 BU victory at Allen Fieldhouse in January.
No. 2, if there’s one common theme in KU’s three losses this season it’s turnovers and how they have led to easy points for KU’s opponents.
The Jayhawks coughed it up a whopping 28 times in a 2-point season-opening loss to Duke at the Champions Classic, and the Blue Devils scored 29 points off those gifts. Kansas gave it away 12 times in a 1-point loss at Villanova — for 13 Wildcat points — with some of the most crucial and devastating turnovers coming in the final two minutes, when KU had the lead and was looking to close out the victory.
Not only do those empty possessions keep points off the board for Kansas, but they also often allow KU’s opponents to score easy baskets instead of having to find a way to score against KU’s stingy defense.
For as long as he has been a head coach, Bill Self has said he can live with turnovers as long as they’re made from effort plays and don’t lead directly to points for the opponent.
Those live-ball turnovers that lead to fastbreak points the other way instead of an inbounds play are a killer and were a huge part of Baylor’s 22-4 run to close the first half in Lawrence.
Baylor leads the Big 12 in turnover margin (+3.04 per game) and Kansas ranks eighth at +0.65. So if there’s an area where KU could really widen the gap in a game that, on paper, features two teams so close together in many statistical categories, it’s definitely the Jayhawks’ ability to take care of the ball and, as an added bonus, to force the Bears into turnovers themselves.
Dotson (2.12) and Marcus Garrett (1.92) rank second and third in the conference in steals per game, which should at least give Kansas a chance of reversing its turnover fortunes.
Dotson’s health plays a pretty big role in this department. And with the sophomore guard feeling close to 100% again, KU should have much better odds of valuing its possessions, even against a Baylor defense that has forced 15 turnovers per game this season.
The Jayhawks, who are averaging 13 turnovers per game for the season, have trimmed that number to 11 per contest in the 11 games since their loss to Baylor in January.
3. Inflict game pressure early
Baylor enters this one 12-0 at home this season. And in the 480 minutes in those 12 games, the Bears have trailed for just 12 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s 2.6% of the time — a number that leads the Big 12 by a wide margin — and that means the Bears have felt very little pressure in their home gym throughout the season.
Kansas’ focus should be to make the Bears feel that early and often.
For years, BU has been the hunter in its matchup with Self and the Jayhawks. But this time around the roles are reversed. Beyond that, it’s Baylor that is ranked No. 1 in the national polls and Baylor that is battling through the excitement and buzz of ESPN’s College GameDay being in town.
While that could lead to a strong effort and all kinds of adrenaline from the home team, it also could ramp up the outside pressure, which could impact what goes down on the court.
After trailing by 13 at halftime in the first meeting, KU, without Dotson, cut the deficit to 5 in the first couple of minutes of the second half. But it was still early and Baylor was playing with house money and a lead, which allowed Drew’s club to remain calm and execute until the end.
Execution on every trip will be critical in the rematch and Self said he, like the numbers, is expecting an all-out grind from start to finish.
“I think on the surface that will be probably a lower possession game,” he said Thursday. “But I also wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 76-75. Who knows? I’d just like to have 1 more (point) than they do. But I think this will be a game in which easy baskets are few and far between.”
KU junior Marcus Garrett vs. Baylor sophomore Jared Butler
You don’t see it often, but it happened the last time these two teams met. Kansas junior Marcus Garrett found an offensive player who had his number a little bit in BU sophomore Jared Butler.
After torching Kansas for 31 points in Allen Fieldhouse a year earlier, Butler scored 22 points in Baylor’s January win in Lawrence, making play after play in the half court down the stretch, even with Garrett guarding him.
Now, it’s not as if Butler went nuts and made Garrett look helpless, but the zone he was in that day won the head-to-head showdown between KU’s best defender and Baylor’s best offensive player.
You can bet Garrett watched every possession of that matchup multiple times this week, going over the scouting report first thing in the morning, right before bed and in between classes every day.
“Oh yeah. He’s ready,” said Dotson of Garrett’s mindset heading into the rematch. “He didn’t go too much in practice (on Wednesday), but I feel like we already know what we have to do to get the job done.”
Self pointed out that Garrett will not be the only one asked to slow Butler down. And that’s another area that Dotson’s full-strength status will play a key role, with his contribution to KU’s defensive assignments as much as his offensive importance.
With that said, if there’s ever a time where the game’s on the line and Butler has the ball in his hands, you can bet the farm that Garrett will be the Jayhawk lining up across from him, trying to get the better of him in Round 2.
“I think he’ll be excited when he’s matched up on him,” Self said. “You know, we switch a lot. You could look at OU or Iowa State or whoever and say, ‘Well, the guy that Marcus was guarding had 12 points’ or whatever and then you go back and watch the tape and (see) he didn’t make one basket on him. I don’t know how many Butler got on him here, or last year, (when) he had 30. But if I recall, we had a couple other guards out there playing, too. (Butler’s) good. I mean, we’re not going to shut him out. He’s going to get his because he can create his own. But, certainly, we need our perimeter defenders to be good.”
It’s entirely possible that both Kansas and Baylor have locked up No. 1 seeds in the fast-approaching NCAA Tournament, barring some sort of collapse down the stretch.
And because of that, both teams should enter this one as loose as can be, ready to test themselves against another of college basketball’s elite teams and national title contenders.
That does not mean there is not a lot at stake in this one.
A Baylor win puts the Bears up two games in the Big 12 race and puts Kansas in the very real position of facing a second consecutive season without hoisting the Big 12 trophy on the heels of the NCAA-record 14-year run.
“If you go down two games with four left, even if we were fortunate enough to run the table, I don’t see them losing twice,” Self said Thursday. “So we know this is a big game. I don’t have to talk about that.”
A Kansas win would pull the Jayhawks even in the Big 12 standings and also avenge the January loss to the Bears while giving KU the inside track for both the top seed in the conference tournament (March 11-14) and potentially the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
For the better part of the past couple of months, KenPom.com has had this as a 1-point game one way or the other. The latest look has KenPom pegging Baylor as a 64-63 winner and Kansas with a 46% win probability.
The Jayhawks’ next three games after this one all come with a win probability of 86% or higher.
Kansas leads the all-time series with Baylor, 32-6, dating back to 1951. The Jayhawks have won 13 of the last 15 meetings in the series and 18 of the last 22.
KU is 13-3 all-time at Baylor’s Ferrell Center, but seven of the last nine matchups have been decided by 8 points or fewer, with five of them ending as one- or two-possession games.
KU’s battles with BU in Waco have been particularly close of late, with four of the last five meetings on Baylor’s home floor being decided by 6 points or fewer. Kansas is 4-1 in those games.
No. 3 Kansas
G – Devon Dotson, 6-2, 185, Soph.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Soph.
G – Isaiah Moss, 6-5, 208, Sr.
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 195, Jr.
C – Udoka Azubuike, 7-0, 255, Sr.
No. 1 Baylor
G – Davion Mitchell, 6-2, 195, RS-Soph.
G – MaCio Teague, 6-3, 195, RS-Jr.
G – Jared Butler, 6-3, 190, Soph.
F – Freddie Gillespie, 6-9, 245, RS-Sr.
G/F – Mark Vital, 6-5, 230, RS-Jr.