No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (21-8) vs. No. 6 USC Trojans (23-7)
Time: 8:40 p.m., Monday, March 22, 2021
Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Ind.
TV: CBS | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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1. Defend, defend, defend
Although encouraged by their ability to put up enough points to survive a scare in Round 1, the Jayhawks are hoping to get back to their identity as a stingy defense in this one.
“That was a game of who can outscore each other,” KU big man David McCormack said of KU’s first-round win. “I think we could definitely defend better in this game.”
Doing so will be easier said than done, as the length and athleticism of the USC lineup figures to present a real challenge for the Jayhawks around the rim. But Kansas has an advantage in that the two-headed monster of Marcus Garrett and Dajuan Harris on the perimeter has the ability to make life miserable for opposing ball handlers.
With those two pressuring the ball, the Trojans may find it harder to get into the offensive sets that lead to easy buckets down low. USC ranks 185th nationally in average length of possession (17.4 seconds), and if the KU defense can sit down and force USC to play deep into the shot clock on most of its offensive trips, it could make the Trojans a little uncomfortable.
In order to do that, KU coach Bill Self said his team would have to a different defensive approach than it did against Eastern Washington.
“We didn't guard very well,” Self said. “The more we pressured, the more unsound we were. Pressured, in our guys’ minds, meant gamble, and we could have been more sound.”
A scenario exists where Evan Mobley, USC’s future NBA lottery pick, scores 20-plus points in this one, but goes home early because the Jayhawks lock down the rest of the Trojans’ lineup.
That happened twice in the past month (in losses to Arizona and Colorado), and in USC’s five other losses, the 7-foot, 210-pound freshman averaged just 13 points per game.
It’ll be important for KU to make Mobley work for what he gets. But the Jayhawks’ lineup does not have a player who naturally matches up with Mobley’s size and skill. Garrett may be KU’s best option, but the Jayhawks will want him up top hounding USC’s ball handlers.
One of the most critical reasons KU will want to contain the USC guards is the fact that dribble penetration could pull McCormack out of position, leading to lots of lobs for the USC front line.
Whatever Kansas can do to force USC to rely on its weaknesses will go a long way toward improving KU’s chances.
To that end, you could see a lot of double teams when Mobley catches it down low since the Trojans are not very reliant on 3-point shooting. They attempt 3-pointers on just 31.2% of their field goals, which ranks 308th nationally.
USC is also a poor free throw shooting team, hitting just 64.7% as a team, which ranks 326th nationally.
2. Continue to take care of the ball
One of the most overlooked aspects of KU’s Round 1 win over Eastern Washington was the fact that the Jayhawks turned it over just six times in the 93-84 victory.
Had that number been even four or five give-aways higher, it could have significantly hindered KU’s chances of advancing, particularly if those extra turnovers came at inopportune times while EWU was in control or building their lead.
It’s no surprise that KU’s lowest turnover total of the season came with Harris on the floor for 35 minutes. Despite playing a career-high in minutes, Harris did not cough up a single turnover while also forcing at least a couple with his defense.
The Trojans’ defense is long at all five spots on the floor and what they lack in terms of terrific individual defense they make up for with deflections and hands/limbs that cut down on passing angles.
It’s one thing for Kansas to protect the ball in this one. That probably seems obvious. Keeping the number of turnovers low is a big key for any team in any game.
But it’s the way the Jayhawks do that that could be most important. They have to be strong with the ball, decisive with their actions and movements and be willing to attack and move the ball to get quality looks.
If they play that way, not only will it help limit turnovers but it also could keep the taller Trojans on their heels and leave room for Kansas to step into the shots they get.
3. Make shots
The most basic aspect of basketball will be critically important for Kansas in this one.
Because the Trojans’ defense does not allow anything easy inside, KU’s going to have to score outside the lane whenever possible.
That could be in transition, off of forced turnovers or in the halfcourt out of quality sets and crisp passing.
While some of that means hitting from the outside (more on that in a minute), by far the most interesting thing here is McCormack, who has good range and great touch away from the basket.
The key for McCormack to be effective with his jumpshot on Monday night is that he knows when to take the right shots. Just because he’s open doesn’t always mean it has to go up. Time, score and situation will be a major factor in determining that.
But it should also be viewed as Option B for the Kansas offense on most possessions.
Given the fact that McCormack has a significant body mass advantage of 15-20 pounds on both Evan Mobley (210) and his older brother, Isaiah Mobley (235), the KU big man should at least explore posting up as deep as he can early in the game to see if bumping the USC big men under the basket can open up some easy, uncontested looks.
If not, don’t force it and fall back on the mid-range jumper and jump hooks he can hit on both sides of the floor over both shoulders.
USC’s first-round opponent, Drake, playing its second game in three days, provided a bit of a blueprint for what’s possible against this USC team, even if the Bulldogs didn’t execute the way they needed to.
Drake’s scrappy, stingy defense, combined with USC’s length and defensive prowess, kept the pace in the 60s until the very end, but the Bulldogs could not do anything offensively.
In scoring just 19 points in the second half Drake shot 29% from the floor, 30% from 3-point range and got to the free throw line just 11 times. That included 19% shooting in the second half.
Behind the strength of 17 offensive rebounds, the Bulldogs actually out-shot USC by 10 field goal attempts for the game. If they had made even just five more field goals — upping their total from 29% to 37% — you’re looking at a one-possession game.
Kansas 3-point shooting vs. USC 2-point defense
The Trojans rank second in the nation in 2-point defense, limiting opponents to 42.2% inside the arc.
That should come as no surprise, given the fact that the strength of their team lies on the front line, where the Mobley brothers make USC one of the tallest teams in college basketball.
Simply put, the closer USC’s opponents get to the rim, the harder their shots become.
That does not mean the Jayhawks should sell out entirely and fire away from 3-point range. But they do need to look to take the 3-pointers that are available — without hesitating — and would do well to make a few like they did against Eastern Washington, when they knocked in 12 of 30 from distance (40%) to help survive a first-round scare.
Finding 3-point success is not a foolproof plan against the Trojans. Earlier this season, Cal Baptist made 20 of 41 3-point shots against USC but still lost the game, 95-87.
No one’s expecting Kansas to shoot 41 or make anywhere close to 20. But the Jayhawks are going to have to make some, simply because USC’s 2-point field goal defense, thanks to its incredible length, is so stingy almost anywhere inside the arc.
Christian Braun and Ochai Agbaji both had moments in KU’s first-round win when they ripped the nets and hit some big outside shots. They’ll need to do that and more against the Trojans because it could be awfully difficult for KU to get another 6-of-9 3-point performance from Garrett and Harris the way they did against Eastern Washington.
Those guys are going to have to let it fly, too, though.
This was one matchup that a lot of people pointed to as soon as the bracket was released last Sunday, and many national analysts have USC advancing in this one.
Kansas can use that as a bit of motivation, although Self would be the first to tell you that if your guys aren’t motivated enough by simply playing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, you might have some other problems.
The respect goes both ways in this one, with Self admiring the way USC plays and defends and USC coach Andy Enfield appreciating KU’s talent, tradition and track record of success in March.
“They’re just exceptional,” Enfield said of Kansas after Saturday’s win over Drake. “They have so much talent. They’re so experienced. They have veterans at different positions. So, we’ll have to play a great game to have a chance to beat them on Monday.”
Monday's game will be the last of the day, making the winner the final piece of the 2021 Sweet 16 puzzle.
Self said the long wait between KU's 11:30 a.m. practice and their departure from the team hotel to the arena will be challenging but that the Jayhawks will do their best to nap, rest and stay off of their feet.
That could be particularly important for McCormack, playing in just his second game back from COVID-19, and Jalen Wilson, who is expected to rejoin the team Monday morning after isolating in Lawrence since testing positive on March 12.
And then there's the place the game is being played, Hinkle Fieldhouse, one of the four or five venues in college basketball that has the same kind of feel and history as KU's home venue.
That won't mean a thing in terms of determining the outcome, but it certainly adds to the excitement surrounding an already massive game.
Oddsmakers believe it may happen. While many online betting sites listed USC as a slight favorite on Saturday night, the folks in Las Vegas listed the game as a Pick ’Em. USC has since moved into the favorite spot by a point and a half, and KenPom.com also sees USC with a slight edge, projecting the Trojans to win a 68-66 game with USC holding a 57% win probability.
Kansas leads the all-time series with USC, 11-5, and the Jayhawks have won the last seven head-to-head meetings with the Trojans.
No. 3 Kansas
G – Dajuan Harris, 6-1, 155, RS-Fr.
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 195, Sr.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Jr.
G – Christian Braun, 6-6, 205, Soph.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Jr.
No. 6 USC
G – Isaiah White, 6-7, 210, RS-Sr.
G – Tahj Eaddy, 6-2, 165, RS-Sr.
G – Drew Peterson, 6-8, 195, Jr.
F – Evan Mobley, 7-0, 215, Fr.
F – Isaiah Mobley, 6-10, 235, Soph.