Who: #5 Maryland vs #1 Kansas
What: A chance to be Elite
Where: The most ridiculously named stadium in sports (the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, KY) and CBS
When: 9:40 PM ET
Line: KU (-6.5)
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to watch a full college basketball game. I got married in the middle of February, went to Mexico for a week, and since then I think I’ve been at work for nearly all of Maryland’s games (the tournament included). But I caught all of the Hawaii game, in all of its ugliness, and now Maryland is in the Sweet 16.
On the post-game podcast, Zach and I talked about how some people would consider a loss here disappointing, and I get that. If you told me at the beginning of the season that Maryland would bow out in the Sweet 16, I probably would have said that the tournament is a crapshoot and shouldn’t be the sole measurement of whether a team had a successful season or not. But if I was being honest, I would’ve been disappointed too.
This Maryland team never formed into the juggernaut that some people were predicting at the beginning of the season. They definitely have their problems: slow starts, cold Melo days, transition D, and especially their baffling inability to control the boards. A lot of people are counting the Terps out of this game against Kansas or saying that Maryland needs to play “a perfect game” to even have a punchers chance. I was one of those people on that post-game podcast. But, I’ve had the last two days off, and I decided to really take a good look at Kansas because writing a Maryland eulogy isn’t my ideal way of spending a day off.
So I watched two full Kansas games: their win at Baylor on February 23rd, and their last loss at Iowa State on January 25th. Anyone intimating that the Terrapins need some sort of divine intervention to win this game is wrong. If Maryland knocks down their threes and defends like they have all year long, this will be a very close game. If they play a perfect game, they’ll win by double digits. Here’s what you need to know about Kansas:
What Kansas does offensively:
So much of what Kansas does well is on the offensive end, and the numbers back that up. They shoot 43% from three as a team, which is downright ridiculous. Their adjusted field goal percentage is 7th in the country at 57%. Just looking at the starters shooting percentages lets you know that this team can score, but you don’t really get a full appreciation for how dangerous the offense is until you see it in action.
Because of how experienced this team is (Wayne Selden and Frank Mason are both juniors, Perry Ellis is an 8th year senior), they are incredibly confident running Bill Self’s offense. On most possessions, the ball pings around the court like a pinball and it never stops until someone has an open look. It’s very rare to see Kansas take an ill-advised shot.
The team is stocked full of shooters ranging from the guards all the way to the big men. Mason is 5’11”, he shoots 39% from three. Perry Ellis is 6’8”, he shoots 44%. Sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham and Selden both are over 40% from deep, and they even have some guy off the bench named Brannen Greene who made 31 of his 63 long balls this year. So for large parts of the game, there’s really no one offensive focal point. If someone’s open, they have the green light to shoot and they usually make it.
Kansas’ guards are all very good players. Mason and Selden are both great shooters and better athletes and Graham can shoot the lights out. But the straw that stirs the drink on this team is Ellis, because he can do absolutely everything. He’s a great shooter for a power forward, a more than capable ball handler who can isolate and get to the basket, and when the guards aren’t playing well, Self will put the ball in Ellis’ hands and he’ll play point forward and initiate the offense. I’m actually shocked they don’t’ have him do that more often.
The biggest weakness Kansas has on the offensive end is that they’re a very poor offensive rebounding team, which isn’t that surprising because of how small the starting five is. Ellis is an undersized 4 at 6’8” and Landon Lucas is a work in progress as a 6’10” center. The guards are usually out beyond the three-point line in the offense, so they don’t do much to bolster the efforts down low.
What Kansas does defensively:
This is where I run a little counter to what the numbers say about Kansas. The numbers say that they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. KenPom has them 5th in adjusted defense, and at times they play up to that ranking like in the second half against Baylor. Bill Self uses almost exclusively man to man and the Jayhawks switch on every ball screen.
While Kansas doesn’t have one elite defender (Ellis is probably the best of the bunch), their familiarity as a team is the biggest strength they have on the defensive end. Mason and Graham can gamble a little bit in the passing lanes because they know Ellis, Lucas and bench guy Jamari Traylor will have their back in the post. There’s nothing flashy about the defense – not a ton of steals or blocks and they rarely press – but when they’re locked in they’re very solid.
The catch is that they’re not always locked in. During the first half of the Baylor game and really for the majority of the Iowa State game, the Kansas defense looked lackadaisical at times. They did a really poor job getting out on three-point shooters, and probably only escaped with a win at Baylor because the Bears aren’t a great three shooting team. In Kansas’ two most recent losses, Iowa State was 9/21 from deep and Oklahoma State was 11/21. Point being, the place to attack this team is from beyond the arc and with Layman, Nickens, Sulaimon and hopefully Trimble, Maryland has the personnel to do it.
For their collective size, Kansas rebounds as well as they can (which is still at a better rate than Maryland). Ellis, Lucas and Traylor will be the ones banging down low with Carter, Stone and Dodd, and it’s really a pretty even matchup. I don’t think Maryland will get beat badly in the rebounding department, and maybe this is the game they finally play up to their size and out rebound a smaller Kansas team (which Baylor did in spades).
How does Maryland win the game:
Defensively, Maryland needs to repeat the Michigan State game from the Big 10 tournament. Their man to man defense at its peak is probably the best Kansas has seen all season long. They’ll need to run Kansas off the three point line all night long and I’m very interested to see whether Turgeon puts his faith in Carter guarding Ellis or goes with the more natural matchup of Layman.
Offensively, the ball will need to keep moving. It sounds simple, but everyone who has watched the Terps at all this season knows that they can get a little isolation happy which makes them very easy to guard. Graham and Mason are both average at best defenders at the guard spots, so Trimble should be able to penetrate and find some open shooters on the perimeter. From there it will really be on Layman and Sulaimon to make some shots and stretch Kansas out which could then compromise their normally stingy two point defense.
Lastly, I’m interested to see if either team changes up their normal style of play to attack one of their opponents big weaknesses. Namely, Kansas doesn’t like to play an up and down style on offense, but Maryland has been known to struggle with their transition D. Will they get out and run more often because of this? On the other side, Maryland’s half court man to man is as good as it gets, but Baylor really threw Kansas off with an aggressive zone in the first half of their game. Does Mark Turgeon even have that club in his bag with this team and if so, will he play it?
Maryland 76 Kansas 74
It’s early in the morning on Thursday and my brain isn’t completely working, so maybe that’s the reason I’m making this pick. Kansas is the number one seed for a reason, but I’d much rather be playing them than the giants of North Carolina. Maryland needs to play well as a whole to win this game and I think they will. I’m not worried about the defense showing up because it has rarely failed to under Turgeon’s tenure. I think Trimble found something in the last round against Hawaii, and if I’m right then good Melo will show uptonight. Along with Layman playing to his averages over the last month and a half and Stone attacking an average big in Lucas, that makes this look like a pretty even playing field to me.
If Maryland sputters out of the gates like they have so many times this season, Kansas will dust them in the first ten minutes with superior execution. But I’m banking on Maryland hanging with the Jayhawks early, out rebounding them all the way through and salting it from the free throw line late to pull off the upset and send the Terps to the Elite 8.