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Friday, December 10, 2021

Game day breakdown: No. 8 Kansas basketball vs. Missouri

Kansas seniors, from left to right, Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and Remy Martin were recently named preseason all-Big 12 picks by the conference's coaches, with Martin earning the preseason player of the year nod.

Kansas seniors, from left to right, Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and Remy Martin were recently named preseason all-Big 12 picks by the conference's coaches, with Martin earning the preseason player of the year nod.

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No. 8 Kansas Jayhawks (7-1) vs. Missouri Tigers (5-4)

Time: 2:15 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021

Location: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kansas

TV: ESPN | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network

Keys for Kansas

1. Keep emotions in check

For years, Kansas players and coaches have talked about how the rocking Allen Fieldhouse atmosphere can also play a role in firing up the opponent. Sure, the deafening roar and pro-KU vibe makes it hard, too, but many opposing players never play in a venue like this and that can bring out the best in some of them.

Beyond that, the hype and pressure surrounding the return of this rivalry is massive and the spike in adrenaline alone could lead to a few uncharacteristic moments for even the most experienced Kansas players.

While Part 1 of this equation speaks to the Tigers’ chances at springing a major upset, Part 2 is directly connected to something the Jayhawks can control. The players are smart. They know this is not just another game. But through their preparation and game planning, they have tried to treat it exactly like that. If they’re able to do that after tip off, that will go a long way toward helping KU turn this into the blowout that so many Jayhawk fans want to see.

“You should never have to worry about effort, but this one would be a game that you probably want to tone it down a little bit,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of the expected intensity in Saturday’s showdown. “There’s a magic level that teams and athletes try to get to. It’s where their energy and focus, concentration, all that stuff (is in harmony). If you have one way too high without the other that doesn’t lead to best performances.”

In addition to control the emotional part of avoiding an upset, the Jayhawks have another thing going in their favor — Missouri’s awful 3-point shooting.

Typically, when you have a game like this where the home team is a heavy favorite over the opponent, one of the best ways for the underdog to stay in it and pull off the upset is by shooting lights out from 3-point range. That certainly could happen in this one — as it could in any game — but the numbers say it’s not likely.

Cuonzo Martin’s team currently ranks 353rd in the country in 3-point percentage, at 24%. The Tigers are averaging just five made 3s per game. Beyond that, the Tigers are averaging just 66.6 points per game, a number that dips to 63.5 ppg if you take out the 91 points MU scored in a lopsided win over NAIA school Paul Quinn.

Given that KU’s offensive efficiency currently ranks third in the country, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers having a chance in this one if they can’t get out of the low 60s.

2. Patience on offense

One thing Missouri does well is find ways to defend in the half-court. The Tigeres make opponents grind out possessions and rank in the top 100, per KenPom.com, in defensive efficiency, turnover percentage and offensive rebounding percentage allowed.

A lot of KU’s best offense this season has come in transition, off of its defense. So there’s little doubt that Kansas would like to run as often as possible in this one. The Jayhawks currently rank fourth nationally in 2-point percentage (59.5), which is a product of easy buckets in transition and more focus on attacking the paint.

During those times in this one when the Jayhawks are not able to get out and go, Self wants to see poise and quality execution in KU’s offensive sets.

“We’re not going to get a shot in the first 5-7 seconds of the shot clock in half-court offense against these guys,” Self said. “So we need to be patient enough to get the ball moving so it gives our offense a chance to work and maybe (their defense) a chance to breakdown.”

KU enters this game with an adjusted tempo rating of 71.3, good for 57th nationally and well over the national average of 68.5. It’s no secret that the Jayhawks, with their depth and athleticism, like to run, and Self believes this game, largely because of the intensity and juice surrounding, will be played at a high pace.

But the Tigers, who rank 220th nationally in tempo, with a 67.6 rating that’s just below the national average, may find it to their advantage to try to slow the game down as much as possible. When they do, Self said his team needs to be better with the ball than it has been at times this season.

That includes the final five or so minutes of the first half of Tuesday’s win over UTEP, when the KU offense looked sloppy and was careless with the basketball.

“I don’t know how fast the game will be,” Self said. “I anticipate it being a fast game. But I can anticipate, when we’re playing five-on-five, there being some long possessions because I think both teams will guard pretty well.”

“We didn’t run good offense against UTEP at all,” he added. “We scored off our defense the first half. I’d just like to see ball and body movement be better. Even though I don’t think it’s awful, I don’t think it’s as good as it can be.”

3. Get on the glass

One of the areas in which Missouri has been particularly strong this season is on the offensive glass, where they rank 38th in the country in getting offensive boards on 34.9% of available opportunities and 40th in the country in giving up offensive rebounds just 23% of the time. Kansas, meanwhile, ranks 25th in going to the offensive glass (36.1% success rate) but just 112th in preventing opponents from doing the same.

“They’re a really good rebounding team,” Self said. “And that hasn’t been a strength of ours, so I think that’ll be a big key.”

Missouri’s average height of 77.3 inches is the exact same as St. John’s, and Kansas clobbered the Red Storm on the boards, out-rebounding them 47-29, including 19-9 on the offensive glass. That kind of effort, which led to a 20-point Kansas victory would go a long way toward delivering a similar outcome in this one.

Through nine games, Missouri is averaging a plus-8 rebounding margin per game. A deeper look shows just how important that stat has been.

The Tigers have been on the right side of the rebounding totals in all five of their victories and on the wrong side of the rebounding battle in three of their four losses. In fact, Mizzou has been out-rebounded 132-128 in its four losses, while holding an edge of 224-144 in the five wins. The Tigers topped the 40-rebound mark in all five of those victories.

“They’re going to guard us in the half-court,” Self said. “And when you guard in the half-court and hold opponents to a relatively low percentage, we’ve got to be able to steal some possessions (on the glass).”

Marquee Matchup

The present vs. the past

Talk to any group of Kansas fans and you’ll find a mixed bag of emotions surrounding this matchup.

Some are excited the rivalry is back and are looking forward to another opportunity clobber their hated rivals. Others are mad it’s back and had hoped that KU would never play the Tigers again after MU left for the SEC following the 2011-12 season. And still others are completely indifferent, saying they’ll watch and root for KU like it’s any other game but don’t have any strong feelings about Missouri’s return or KU giving in and playing them again.

Regardless of which camp they fall in, nearly everyone with ties to KU can agree on one thing — even though the rivalry’s back, it will never be the same.

With that being true, the current Jayhawks have a golden opportunity to be the founding fathers of the new era of the KU-MU rivalry. It might not be as ugly or as passionate and there might not be conference ties and championships on the line whenever they meet. But it can still be a big deal. And there are enough players and coaches in the KU program who are uniquely qualified to chart the course ahead.

Christian Braun grew up with the rivalry, having so many family members who played and/or starred at Missouri. Ochai Agbaji learned about the rivalry throughout his high school days. And Chris Teahan’s family has long been a part of this rivalry, both as past participants and living on the state line between the two border rivals.

Add to that Self’s experiences, along with those of assistant coaches Norm Roberts, Kurtis Townsend and Jeremy Case, and it’s easy to see how there are enough people at KU today who can do their best to honor what the rivalry was while being charged with making it what it is today and what it will become in the future.

The current series is set for six years. Two games in Lawrence, two in Columbia, Missouri, and two more in Kansas City, Missouri. If all goes well, that will be extended and these two will continue to play for years to come. The renewal of the football series, starting in 2025, is right around the corner, as well.

So while it makes sense for people to dwell on the fact that what takes place Saturday won’t be anything close to what took place in 2012 or in 2003 or in 1990 or in 1960, there also is room for this thing to take on a whole new identity, and these two teams, along with the fans who are a part of it, get the chance to write the first chapter of the new era of the border rivalry between Kansas and Missouri. For many of them, that won’t be hard at all. For the others, they should have no problem learning as they go.

That’s basically what this Kansas team has had to do and, based on their comments this week about the game and what it means to so many, that has not been a problem.

“It hasn’t died down,” Agbaji said of the KU-MU rivalry. “Coach still approached this game and preparing for this game like the rivalry back in 2012. It’s still beef between us even though we haven’t played and it still means a lot to both sides.”

Added Braun: “It never really died to me, to be honest. Every year you would get those comments from people about KU and Mizzou. We just weren’t playing each other.”

Jayhawk Pulse

While so much of the talk this week has been about the renewal of the rivalry with the Tigers, there is still a basketball game to be played.

Agbaji said that fact has been emphasized in practice and off the court throughout the week, with the Jayhawks doing everything in their power to treat this showdown like the next game up and another challenge they have to conquer.

“This is just another game that we’re preparing for. Obviously it’s a big game, but we’ve got to take it as another chance to get better. Preseason, moving into conference, (we’re just focusing on) getting better every game.”

To that end, Agbaji said defense continues to be KU’s “main focus.”

“I think everyone knows that defense is what’s going to travel when we’re on the road in the Big 12,” he said. “So we’re just practicing and preparing for those games. Keeping that same defensive mentality and keeping that same focus, defensively, that we start the game off with, whether we go to the bench or keep the starting five in. More than anything, I think it’s mental.”

Now three games removed from their lone loss of the season, the Jayhawks have shown growth in that area. But in wins over Iona, St. John’s and even UTEP, KU still had stretches where they relaxed and allowed the opponent to find success and dictate portions of those games.

Because this is such a storied and bitter rivalry, there’s a chance that the bragging rights element, and wanting to send the other team home humiliated, will keep KU’s focus sharper than it has been at any point this season.

Time will tell on that, of course. But that’s certainly the goal for the Kansas players. And Self believes his players, along with the home crowd, both will be ready to do their part to try to make it happen.

“It’s been, what, 20 months since we had a real crowd,” Self asked. “And I don’t want to take away anything from this year, but I’m talking about a real crowd. I think that’ll be exciting and good for everybody. Kansas is playing Missouri and that, in itself, brings some excitement and energy to whatever situation it is, so it’ll be good for everybody.”

Self added: “We want to win this game. But this game is not more important than other games we play later on in our season. It’s just more important because it’s the next game and the present game. Let’s everybody bring their A game. Because we know Mizzou will.”

Probable Starters

No. 8 Kansas

G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 180, Soph.

G – Remy Martin, 6-0, 195, Sr.

G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Sr.

G – Christian Braun, 6-7, 205, Jr.

F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Sr.

Missouri

G – Amari Davis, 6-2, 175, Jr.

G – DaJuan Gordon, 6-3, 190, Jr.

G – Javon Pickett, 6-5, 215, Sr.

F – Ronnie DeGray III, 6-6, 225, Soph.

F – Kobe Brown, 6-8, 250, Jr.

Comments

Dirk Medema 8 months ago

This feels like a game for Remy to go off. Hopefully all the guys will have a great game with no substitute drop off.

It’s nice that Coach Leipold gets a few years to turn things around.

Robert Brock 8 months ago

Let’s see if the Jayhawks can play tough defense - especially at the perimeter - consistently. I’m skeptical...but miracles happen.

Blake Brown 8 months ago

I fall into the camp of those who "are excited the rivalry is back and are looking forward to another opportunity clobber their hated rivals". I don't use the hate word, but I'll be happy with the clobber.

BTW, another great article Matt. Lots of pertinent detail. Loving it.

Bryce Landon 8 months ago

Let's see if Kansas can develop a killer instinct - get an opponent down and make sure they stay down. FOOT. ON. THE. THROAT.

MUCK FIZZOU!

Rodney Crain 8 months ago

Agree! This is a team we should crush, so let's hope we don't turn this into a close game.

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