Western Kentucky has two of three traits that huge underdogs want
Team: Western Kentucky
KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 183
All statistics from KenPom.com unless otherwise noted
• Offensive rebounding: Let's get the scary part out of the way for Kansas fans: ESPN's "Giant Killers" blog has identified three high-risk, high-reward characteristics that most NCAA Cinderellas share, and WKU is strong in two of the three. The first is offensive rebounding, which helps an underdog avoid a knockout scoring run by a favorite.
The Hilltoppers rank 73rd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, pulling down 34.8 percent of their missed shots. That number was even higher (36 percent) during Sun Belt Conference play. The good news for KU? It has been a strong defensive rebounding team all year, ranking 61st nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.
• Shooting a high percentage of threes: This is the second characteristic that Cinderellas often have, as shooting lots of threes is another strategy that has the potential to reward an underdog in a one-game setting. The Hilltoppers rank 78th nationally in percentage of three-pointers taken, as 36.4 percent of their field goals are threes.
WKU hasn't shot it particularly well from the outside (33.2 percent is slightly below NCAA average), but again, that number can fluctuate up or down in a one-game sample size. Allowing threes has been a weakness for KU this year, as 36.2 percent of the field goals against the Jayhawks this season have been treys (291st-lowest split nationally).
• Defensive rebounding: WKU ranks 139th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage and actually improved in that area during conference play. The Hilltoppers ranked third in league play in that stat, pulling down 69.7 percent of the available defensive rebounds.
• Creating steals: The third item on the "Giant Killers" Cinderella checklist is defensive steal percentage, and this is one of WKU's biggest weaknesses. The Hilltoppers rank 240th nationally in defensive steal percentage, coming away with swipes on just 9.1 percent of opponents' possessions.
• Carelessness: Western Kentucky's biggest issue offensively has been turnovers, as it ranks 300th nationally in offensive turnover percentage while giving it away on 22.4 percent of its possessions. This doesn't match up with a KU strength, though, as the Jayhawks are 242nd nationally in forcing turnovers.
• Gettting shot blocked: WKU appears to be a team that KU center Jeff Withey should affect. The Hilltoppers had 10.6 percent of their two-pointers blocked this year, which ranks 273rd nationally. Withey, meanwhile, has the nation's seventh-best block percentage, rejecting 13.6 percent of opponents' twos when he's in the game.
3 Players to Watch
• Six-foot-4 guard T.J. Price (No. 52) takes on the biggest offensive load for WKU.
The sophomore takes 29.4 percent of WKU's shots when he's in (111th nationally), and his specialty is threes, as he's shot more threes than twos this year (218 to 199) and has made a high percentage of them (79 of 218, 36.2 percent). Price isn't much of a penetrator (only 20 percent of his shots this year have been at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com) and also doesn't draw many fouls, so he looks to be an ideal matchup for KU's best perimeter defender Travis Releford.
• Six-foot-3 guard Jamal Crook (No. 14) is the player that can attack KU off the dribble and also find teammates, ranking 74th nationally in assist percentage. The senior draws five fouls per 40 minutes (265th nationally) and is dangerous inside the arc, making 53 percent of his twos (94 of 179).
Crook is a good shooter off the dribble, as according to Hoop-Math, he has made 42 percent of his two-point jumpshots (NCAA average is 35 percent), though only 28 percent of those shots were assisted. Though Crook is not a threat from the outside, making just nine of 33 three-pointers (27.3 percent), he is WKU's best perimeter defender, ranking 223rd nationally in steal percentage.
• Six-foot-6 George Fant (No. 44) is an undersized forward whose best skill is getting to the free throw line. The sophomore draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes (50th nationally) and has shot 197 free throws, which is more than any KU player. Fant also is WKU's best rebounder, ranking 263rd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and 473rd in defensive rebounding percentage. Overall, though, Fant is one of the Hilltoppers' least efficient players because of a high turnover rate, below-average free throw shooting (60.4 percent) and poor two-point jump shooting (32 percent on two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math).
KU opening as a 20-point favorite sounds about right, but WKU's style of shooting a high percentage of threes and grabbing a lot of rebounds leaves the possibility for a large number of outcomes to be possible. The Hilltoppers' perimeter shooting should play a huge factor in whether the game turns out to be a laugher or one that is decided in the second half.