What Can We Learn from the November Meeting?
The question of what can be learned from a prior regular season meeting can be a tricky one, especially when there's been so much time in between meetings. No. 1 seed Kentucky (37-2) and No. 2 seed Kansas (32-6) will meet on Monday night for the national title, a rematch of their November 15th meeting at the Champions Classic in New York.
Kentucky won that game 75-65, scoring 47 points in the second half of a game that was tied at 28 at the break. While both teams are far different outfits, with the Wildcat freshmen playing just their second collegiate game and Kansas having some players who are important now adjusting to their new roles on that night, there are some things that can be taken away from the Kentucky win.
Here are some thoughts from that first meeting, and how they apply to what each team will need to do in order to win on Monday night.
1. Tyshawn Taylor
There's no denying the fact that the senior point guard will need to play very well if Kansas is to win its fourth NCAA title. Turnovers have been a talking point when it comes to Taylor for much of the season, but he did not turn the ball over once in the first meeting with Kentucky. The concern on Monday night when looking at the box score from the November meeting: making shots in the lane.
Nine of Taylor's 13 shots came by way of either a layup or dunk, yet he made just two of them. Overall Taylor shot 3 of 13 from the field, scoring 22 points due to a 15 of 17 night from the foul line. It's tough to see him getting 17 free throw attempts on Monday night, meaning that Taylor will need to do a better job of converting the looks he finds in the lane.
With Anthony Davis, who will likely draw Jeff Withey defensively, lurking inside that's easier said than done. And to be fair the missed layups issue wasn't Taylor's alone back in November. As a team the Jayhawks made 7 of 29 layups (14 of 37 overall when counting dunks) according to the CBSSports.com shot chart from the game, a line that simply won't get it done in the rematch.
2. Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford
These two came up big against Ohio State on Saturday night, and Johnson's the reason why the Jayhawks were able to get past Purdue in the Round of 32. Yet they combined to shoot 5 of 17 from the field against Kentucky, scoring 12 points. Releford had the toughest time of the two when it comes to adjusting to Kentucky's length as he accounted for five of Kansas' 14 turnovers.
But in five tournament games Releford has accounted for just three turnovers. Kentucky's a different class of opponent than the five teams the Jayhawks have faced to this point due in large part to their size and wingspan at all five positions. But Releford taking better care of the basketball is a good trend to ride into the title game. The last time Releford's had a turnover percentage of 50% or worse was Kansas' win over Baylor back on February 8. Since then the number's been no higher than 20%; it was 55.5% against Kentucky back in November.
Johnson made just one of his six jumpshots on the night, and for the season 59.5% of his shot attempts come from beyond the arc. But he's been better down the stretch than he was at Madison Square Garden, which could bode well for the Jayhawks. In that game Johnson posted an effective field goal percentage of 31.8%; in four of the five tournament games he's posted an eFG% of 60% or better. Johnson's shooting better and Releford's taking better care of the basketball, and both of those things will need to happen on Monday night.
3. Thomas Robinson
With this being the first match-up of First Team AP All-Americans in a title game since 1999 (Duke's Elton Brand and Connecticut's Richard Hamilton) it's obvious that Robinson and Davis will receive a lot of hype, and rightfully so. The question for Robinson will be how he deals with Kentucky's interior length, and that also includes sophomore Terrence Jones.
Robinson will likely see both players, with Jones possibly getting more time in an attempt to keep Davis out of foul trouble. But regardless of which one he's being guarded by, the Big 12 Player of the Year has to do a better job of scoring around the rim than he did in the first meeting. Robinson missed six shots around the rim, and for the night he made 5 of 12 from the field. On the season Robinson is making 51% of his 2-point shots, and he's been around that number just once (53.8% vs. Detroit) in the tournament.
That's understandable given the amount of attention Robinson's received from opposing defenses, so if Jeff Withey can make Kentucky pay with a couple baskets early things could open up for Robinson. That being said, the Wildcats may be willing to gamble on Withey being able to beat them as he did Baylor in their meeting in Waco. Either way, Robinson will need to score more than the 11 points he tallied in November if Kansas is to win.
1. Marquis Teague
Similar to Taylor, the freshman from Indianapolis will be a key figure in the action at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. As it was for Kentucky as a team back in November, the first meeting was a tale of two halves for Teague. Teague turned the ball over six times in the first half, and it's no coincidence that the Wildcats played better as he took better care of the basketball (zero turnovers in the second half).
On the season Teague has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.8 and for the tournament his ratio is at 2.0, which is a far cry from what he put forth at MSG. Teague was similar to Taylor in regards to shots around the basket, as he also struggled in November. Teague made 2 of 7 layups and dunks, with wild forays to the basket tending to lead to either misses or the turnovers discussed above.
With experience has come maturity for Teague, and if he can continue on that path Monday night both he and his team should be able to reap the rewards. Attack the lane with a purpose, and be sure to not kill his dribble without knowing what his next move will be, and Teague should be productive at the point.
2. Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
There aren't many players in America who are scrutinized as much as Jones, with his demeanor being the focus of many. When he's dialed in Jones is one of the toughest match-ups in the country, as he can finish above the rim and knock down perimeter jumpers. And he played well in the first meeting, accounting for 15 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
Similar to Jones, Kidd-Gilchrist was all over the box score against Kansas with 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. His versatility on the defensive end lends itself to John Calipari being able to give him nearly any defensive assignment on the floor. Kidd-Gilchrist saw some time defensively against Peyton Siva on Saturday, with his length giving Siva trouble in the first half, and he could be called on to defend Tyshawn Taylor some on Monday night.
The one issue for Kidd-Gilchirst in the first meeting were the five turnovers, a number he hasn't matched since January 3 against UALR when he had six. MKG finished Saturday's game with four turnovers in what was a somewhat frustrating night following an outstanding weekend in Atlanta the week prior. If Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist are able to leave their prints on the game in a variety of areas, Kentucky is going to be tough to beat. If one (or both) struggle, then the door opens even wider for Kansas.
3. Anthony Davis
Regardless of what the freshman from Chicago may have said at the end of Kentucky's win over Louisville on Saturday night, the fact of the matter is that he took over against Louisville. 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots for Davis, who has won every major Player of the Year award except for one (Michigan State's Draymond Green won the NABC's award).
14 points, seven blocked shots and six rebounds is what Davis put up in the November meeting, and that doesn't take into effect the number of shots he changed on that night (see Kansas' numbers on layups and dunks above for an idea of that). The task for Davis is a simple one on Monday night: stay out of foul trouble, whether he's on Robinson or Withey to start. The battle between he and Withey features two of the best shot-blockers in the country, with Davis leading in blocks per game and Withey in block percentage.
Of the two Davis is the better offensive weapon, but it isn't as if Kentucky has to run a lot of plays specifically for him. Four of his six made field goals in the first meeting were either layups or dunks, and he's fifth on the team in possession percentage (19.1%) according to Ken Pomeroy's numbers. Davis being a force on both ends of the floor would likely mean an eight national title for Kentucky, something the Jayhawks must make sure doesn't happen.