By Nate Bukaty
1) Run Prevention: Note, I use the term “Run Prevention” here, rather than simply “pitching.” Essentially, “run prevention” is the new fancy term for the combination of pitching and defense. I prefer the new term, because the two units really work hand-in-hand. And, when it comes to collective run prevention, the Royals’ pitchers and fielders work together about as well as anyone in the American League. As the folks at fangraphs.com have pointed out, one easy way to see how much a team’s defense has helped it’s pitches is to look at the difference between the staff’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and it’s ERA (you all know what that stands for, I assume.) KC currently has the 2nd best ERA in the AL, behind the A’s (did I put enough initials in that sentence for you?) Meanwhile, they have just the 10th best FIP in the League. This tells you that the Royals’ defense is playing a major role in the pitching staff’s outstanding start to the season.
2) Raising the EscoBAR: Quick, who currently leads the Royals in OPS? If you’re your answer is Alcides Escobar, then you probably just made an obvious guess based off of my corny intro. But seriously, Alcides Escobar, baseball’s worst everyday offensive player in 2013, currently has the highest OPS on the Royals team, at .828. He leads the team in OBP, and has the second-highest slugging percentage, behind only Danny Valencia, who has just 11 ABs on the season. If you ever needed an example as to why we shouldn’t make too much of the small sample size of these first 19 games, this is it.
I’ll go ahead and make this bold prediction: if Escobar is leading the Royals in OPS by the end of the season, they will not be in the playoffs. But this statistical rarity does tell you a couple of things: 1) Escobar is off to a hot start in 2014, which has been important in keeping the Royals around .500, and 2) pretty much everyone else is not. This is the third straight year that Escobar has gotten off to a fast start. In 2012, he carried that start to his best offensive year as a big leaguer. In 2013, he devolved into an almost automatic out. It’s more than a safe bet that Escobar won’t maintain the numbers he’s currently putting up for the rest of the season, but he’s at least giving hope that he can be useful for more than just his glove.
3) Oh-my Omar: The Royals are getting exactly what they were looking for when they signed Omar Infante to a four-year, 32 million dollar contract this off-season: a dependable, consistent presence at second base. Infante’s 2014 offensive numbers almost perfectly line up with his career production. He’s been a steady bat in the two-hole, and he’s shown toughness, playing through some early season elbow issues, and he missed just 2 games after getting hit in the face by a pitch. On Tuesday night, Infante even suffered another scare when Indians reliever Chen-Chang Lee lost control of a fastball that sailed dangerously close to Infante’s melon. One could understand if such a moment would’ve caused Infante to suffer some flashbacks, but the veteran simply dusted himself off and promptly roped a single back up the middle. So, for the first time in years, the Royals seem to have stability at second base.
1. Loud Noises: As in, the Royals’ bats haven’t made many of them. This topic has been covered ad nauseam, but it merits the coverage. The Royals’ lack of power is the fundamental reason that their record is no better than a game above .500. The first two games of this Cleveland series have been a perfect example. Home runs have determined the winner of each game, pure and simple. Jason Kipnis decided game one with a two-run blast off Jeremy Guthrie. Mike Moustakas decided game two with a three-run bomb off Danny Salazar. The Royals finished dead last in the American League in home runs last season, and they are dead last again this season. It’s hard to even have an average offense when that’s the case.
2. Walk before you trot: What the Royals lack in power, they make up for in impatience. Of course, this is something we Royals fans have grown accustomed to over the past quarter century. This season, only the Orioles and White Sox have drawn fewer walks than the Royals. But is that because they have poor plate discipline, or simply because their opponents pound the strike zone, because they have no fear of the Royals’ power? Well, the evidence suggests that you don’t necessarily need to throw a strike to get Royals hitters to swing. According to fangraphs, The Royals swing at a higher percentage of balls out of the strike zone than all but two teams in the American League. Those other two teams? You guessed it: The Orioles and White Sox. Still question whether or not walks are a function of plate discipline?
3. The AL Central: This could be great news for the Royals. Last year, it took 93 wins for the Tigers to clinch the Central. The way things are looking now, it’d be a surprise if that many wins were necessary to win the division this time around. Sure, it’s early, and teams can change over the course of the season. But right now the Central is a complete jumble of average-looking teams. Only 2.5 games separate first place from last. As of Wednesday morning, nobody in the division has more than 10 wins, and nobody has fewer than nine. Obviously we expect some sort of separation to develop as time goes on, but maybe not as much as in years past. All of the teams in the Central look flawed, as I view them. That includes the Tigers, who recently cut their shortstop, and are still searching for answers to their bullpen issues. Last season, the Indians made the Wild Card with 92 wins. It might not even take that many victories to win the division this year.
By Nate Bukaty
1. Where was Wiggins?
Andrew Wiggins picked a bad day to lay an egg. Of course, when you get to this time of year, there is no good day to have a bad game. One off night, and your season is over. After the game, Wiggins was as hard on himself as anyone, saying, “I didn’t play like I should have. I blame myself for this. Today I just laid an egg. I didn’t bring it for my team. I let a lot of people down.” While Wiggins certainly could have done more to make his presence felt in the game, I think that Stanford deserve a lot of credit for getting him out of his game. The Cardinal zone clearly made Wiggins uncomfortable, and their length bothered all of the Jayhawk players, with perhaps the exception of Tarik Black. Of the zone, Wiggins again put the blame on himself, “We didn’t play bad against the zone,” he said, “I just played bad against the zone.”
Wiggins is too hard on himself, in this case. Clearly, the Stanford coaches made it their top priority to keep Wiggins in check. Sure, a great scorer still finds a way to get his points in a situation like that, but it certainly helps if some teammates step up to make the opponent pay for such an approach. Neither thing happened for Kansas in this game. I think it’s unfortunate that this will be the last memory that people have of Andrew Wiggins in a Jayhawk uniform. I am confident that Wiggins will grow to become a very good, if not great, NBA player. I can’t imagine how great he would be in the college game, if we were able to watch him as a sophomore, but of course we won’t get that chance.
2. Should Frankamp have played more?
If not for Conner Frankamp, the Jayhawks might not have even been playing on Sunday. When Kansas was struggling on Friday against Eastern Kentucky, it was the freshman from Wichita who came into the game and calmed the waters. After struggling to get any consistent playing time during the season, Frankamp’s number was called against the Colonels. He answered with 10 points, four assists, and zero turnovers in 25 minutes. Then again on Sunday, it was Frankamp hitting a big pull-up three at the end of the first half, putting the Jayhawks in front on their way to the locker room. So why did Bill Self only play his freshman sharp-shooter for seven minutes in the second half? On the surface, getting Frankamp into the game more, especially as an outside shooting threat against Stanford’s zone, seems like a no-brainer.
But if you look at the circumstances of the game, things aren’t always so simple. The Jayhawks really started to fight back in the game when they went to the full-court press. The Cardinal had all sorts of problems getting the ball up the court against KU’s quickness and athleticism. That’s not exactly a strong point of Conner Frankamp’s game right now.
3. What’s the future of the PG position?
One of the bright spots of KU’s short tournament run this season was the play of Frankamp. The freshman from Wichita came in as a top 35 recruit, but he played in just 26 games this year, and averaged just 8 minutes per game when he did play.
But with the way he played in St. Louis last weekend, Frankamp has emerged as a potential answer to the point guard question. Of course, Naadir Tharpe will be back as a senior, and Frank Mason will challenge for the starting role as a sophomore. It will be very interesting to see how that three-horse race shakes out for next year.
Clearly, one of the missing ingredients for this year’s Kansas team, at least as far as being a true National Champion contender, was steady leadership at the point guard position. At least one of those players must rise to that challenge next year, if the Jayhawks are to make a run to the Final Four.
4. Who’s coming back?
After Sunday’s game, freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, and Joel Embiid were asked about their thoughts on entering the NBA draft this summer. All three said they weren’t thinking about it yet, but decisions will be made in the coming days. Let’s be honest: there’s no decision for Wiggins to make. He’s gone, and that’s the right decision for him.
As for Selden, I personally find it hard to believe that he has much of a choice to make, because I think he needs to come back. As Mike DeCourcy said on our show Monday morning, Selden is not a good NBA prospect right now, but he can make himself into a very good prospect, if he grows his game significantly over the next year or two. A player who couldn’t get on the floor in the second half against Stanford should not be thinking about jumping to the pros right now, in my opinion.
Embiid is the trickiest one. Purely based on his raw talent and ability, he should go pro. But based on his emotionally readiness, and his development, Embiid himself has indicated that the best choice might be to come back to school. But the back injury throws all of these ideas into question. Would Embiid be risking further damaging his draft stock by coming back to college, should he suffer another back injury? Or would Embiid be better served to come back and show that his back problems are, ahem, truly behind him? My guess is that Embiid will see the risk of returning to college, and he’ll make the jump. But I’m not as confident in that prediction as I am with the other two.
5. Who’s coming in?
As of now, the Jayhawks have two more five-star commitments coming in for next year, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre. Alexander, the fourth-rated prospect in the country, according to Rivals, is a 6’7 “physically intimidating power player” out of Chicago. Oubre, the nation’s 12th rated prospect per Rivals, is listed as a 6’7 “pure wing scorer with great size, deep range and a feel for the offensive end of things.” These seem like almost perfect replacements for Embiid and Wiggins, should the two players turn pro. I say “almost” because Alexander doesn’t have the length and shot-blocking ability that Embiid possesses. In fact, if Embiid goes to the NBA, that will leave the Jayhawks with 7-footer Myles Turner as its 7-foot shot-blocking presence. Still, considering how much the Jayhawks have returning next year, when you add these players to the mix, you have to think that Kansas will be the preseason favorites to win an 11th straight Big 12 title.
By Nate Bukaty
1. Back to the Future:
If the Jayhawks’ future is going to be bright this March, Joel Embiid must put his back problems behind him. See what I did there? In all seriousness, this is the biggest concern I have for the Jayhawks, as they prepare for the postseason. I came away from Saturday night’s game much more troubled by Embiid’s strained back than I was about KU’s loss to the Pokes. Bill Self announced this week that his seven-foot freshman will sit out the remaining two games of the regular season, as he attempts to recover from this latest setback. Self says he might even hold Embiid out of part of the Big 12 tournament, if he’s not feeling markedly better. This absolutely looks like the right move. When you consider the fact that Embiid’s back problem is now a recurring issue, Bill Self and his staff must do everything possible to get him fully healthy before the NCAA tournament starts. I’m not sure that there’s a more valuable player for any team that has legitimate National Title aspirations.
2. Can Tharpe deliver in March?
This has been a constant topic of conversation for Kansas fans all season long. We’ve seen brilliant stretches of play from the Junior point guard, but we’ve also seen games where Nadiir looked undisciplined and unfocused. A performance like the one that Tharpe produced in Stillwater seems like a perfect recipe for an early tournament exit. I’ve had many people ask me if Tharpe is capable of putting together six straight good games, which is likely what it would take for the Jayhawks to be cutting down the nets at the end. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m not even sure it’s a fair one. Yes, technically, you have to win six games in a row to win the Championship. But most coaches view the tournament as a series of two-game series. The Jayhawks need Tharpe to play well two games at a time.
3. What does the loss to Oklahoma State mean?
I’ve had fun throwing around the fact that, the last time KU won the National Championship, they lost at K-State, Texas, and Oklahoma State in that same season. This year, the Jayhawks have lost at those same three locations. Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Jayhawks are destined for another trophy this year. But it does mean that losses such as these are also no cause to hit the panic button. I was a little surprised to see how hard some KU fans were taking Saturday’s loss. I suppose I should know better. Sure, some weaknesses and causes for concern were exposed in Stillwater. But, if you remember back to 2008, the same could be said for that team. In fact, it was the loss at Oklahoma State that prompted the now-famous players-meeting at Henry T’s, where the teammates worked to sort some of their issues out. After winning the Championship, many of the players pointed to the frustration in Stillwater, and the following team bonding exercise, as the catalyst for their tournament run.
4. Why does it matter that Marcus Smart misquoted Bill Self?
In the end, it really doesn’t matter that much. But it was worthy of conversation for one specific reason: Smarts words went out to a national audience, implying that Bill Self had openly talked about doing something disrespectful on an opponents’ home court. I don’t blame Self for bristling at the accusation, particularly at the insinuation that he’d do something like that on the home floor of his alma mater. I can believe that Smart didn’t intentionally fabricate the quote. I can see a college kid hearing about a team “celebrating” when they win the league outright, and equating that with cutting down nets. I’ll give Smart a bit of a pass on that, but I don’t blame Self at all for defending himself against the inaccurate comments.
5. Can KU still get a Number 1 Seed?
I think the better question is, do they need one? In my view, it’s more important for the Jayhawks to get into the right bracket, than it is for them to get the right seed. I’ll use 2007 as an example. That year, Kansas got the number one seed in the West, over a UCLA team with a similar resume. The Jayhawks reward? They had to play in San Jose against UCLA in the Elite Eight. I witnessed that game in person. Sure, KU wore the white uniforms that night, but everything else about it felt like a home game for UCLA. The Bruins won that game and advanced to the Final Four. My point being that the Jayhawks might be just as well off with a two seed, if they get to stay closer to home.
By Nate Bukaty
Pitchers and catchers arrive in Surprise this week, which means it’s not too soon to start speculating on what the Royals’ 25-man roster will look like on Opening Day. To their credit, the Royals go into the 2013 camp with fewer questions than any year in recent memory. The lineup looks all but set. Four out of the five spots in the rotation appear to be locked down. Even most of the bullpen is established. But, it’s still Spring Training, and that means we still have questions! Here are my top five questions to be answered over the next month and a half in Arizona:
1) Who wins the final rotation spot?
We already know that, barring an unforeseen injury, the first four spots will go to James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, and Bruce Chen. That leaves competition for the one remaining spot in the rotation. The Royals have indicated that the candidates for the job are Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, and Brad Penny. Hochevar and Davis already have a body of work that shows they are better suited for the bullpen, so let’s set those two aside for the moment. 35-year-old Brad Penny is attempting a comeback after sitting out the entire 2013 season. He says it’s the first time he’s taken an extended time to rest him arm since he was five, and he says he’s in better shape now than since the last year he pitched. Still, Penny is on a minor league deal, and he’s a long shot. That leaves young fireballers Duffy and Ventura. For me, the best bet is to give Duffy the job, and to option Ventura back to AAA for more seasoning, but that all depends on how the two perform this spring. If Duffy doesn’t make the rotation, there is talk that he could make the roster as a reliever.
2) Do the Royals dare go with an 11-man staff?
Speaking of relievers, how many do the Royals really need to carry on their roster this year?The answer to this question will affect decisions that the Royals make elsewhere on the roster. In years past, we’ve seen the Royals keep as many as eight bullpen arms on the roster. We’ve seen other organizations use as few as six, although I can’t remember the last time the Royals went that route. If the Royals get the kind of production out of their starting rotation that they got a year ago, then it’s a least reasonable to consider going with just a six-man bullpen. In 2013, only the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves used their bullpens less than the Royals. In years past, the Royals had almost always overworked their bullpens, because they couldn’t count on innings from their starters. That wasn’t the case last year, and it shouldn’t be the case this year. So, why not use that last roster spot to keep an extra position player like Danny Valencia or Justin Maxwell?
3) Do the Royals need insurance for Moustakas?
By all accounts, the Royals are expecting a big step forward from Mike Moustakas in 2014. They say he’s refined his approach (less pull conscious) and he’s gotten in better shape (dropped ten pounds.) That’s all good news, but it can’t be enough to make the Royals totally forget about the unsightly .681 OPS that Moose has posted through almost 1,500 plate appearances at the Major League level. More specifically, it can’t erase the memory of Moustakas hitting .196 against lefties last year, and .222 against southpaws in his career. Moose’s platoon splits have to be at least part of the reason that the Royals traded David Lough to the Orioles for right-handed hitting third baseman Danny Valencia. In 102 plate appearances against lefties last year, Valencia posted a 1.031 OPS. But the Royals already have a right-handed power bat on the bench, in Justin Maxwell. Assuming the Royals keep Pedro Ciriaco as their utility infielder, then the only way I can see Maxwell and Valencia making the same roster is if the Royals go with just six relievers.
4) Who will the backup catcher be?
Think this question isn’t important? Let’s not forget that, just two years ago, Salvador Perez caught only 76 games, because of a serious knee injury that he suffered in spring training. The Royals haven’t forgotten, as they’ve already kicked around the idea of giving Perez some days at first base or DH, to save wear and tear on his tree-trunk legs. The walk machine known as George Kottaras is gone. This leaves Brett Hayes, Adam Moore, Ramon Hernandez, and Francisco Pena as the candidates. Based on track record, Hernandez is by far the best offensive option out of this bunch, but he’s turning 38 in May. The odds are, this job will go to the best “catch and throw” guy of the bunch. Whichever guy shows he can field the position and handle the pitching staff will be your guy.
5) Do the Royals have a clear-cut offensive approach?
There’s no positive way to spin the way the Royals handled their situation at the hitting coach position at the beginning of last year. First, they fired Kevin Seitzer, because in the words of Ned Yost, they needed to hit more home runs. So they hired Jack Maloof, who after less than two months of watching his players hit even fewer home runs than they had under Seitzer, boldly stated, “There is just no reward here (at Kauffman Stadium) to try and hit home runs.” So, everybody got that? Clear as mud, right? To the Royals’ credit they moved on quickly from Maloof (although they didn’t fire him, rather they just reassigned him) and brought in George Brett and Pedro Grifol to salvage the Royals’ offense. Brett was a short-term fix, as we all expected at the time, but Grifol remains. He even went to Venezuela to work with Mike Moustakas in winter ball. The hitters all seem to like and respect Grifol. You have to think that it’s a positive that Grifol is back, if for no other reason than to keep some sort of consistent approach for the Royals’ young hitters.
By Nate Bukaty
1. Don’t let one loss become two: For the second straight year, the Jayhawks opened the month of February with a loss. This season, KU had their seven-game conference winning streak snapped on February first, when they were outmuscled by Texas. The Longhorns blocked 12 shots, and outrebounded the Jayhawks, 44 to 37. Last year, KU had their their seven-game conference winning streak snapped on February 2nd, when they were outmuscled by Oklahoma State, in a game that Bill Self called a “physical beatdown.” Bill Self is hoping that the similarities to last year’s early February end right there. You might recall that the Jayhawks let last year’s loss to the Cowboys snowball into a three-game losing streak. After the OSU game, Bill Self’s team went to TCU and played their worst offensive half since the Topeka YMCA, in his words. It’s not a reach to say that the Jayhawks’ were still affected by their loss to Oklahoma State when they took the floor in Fort Worth four days later. So, that’s the big challenge for this young KU team: Flush the memory of Saturday’s tough game, and play with a free mind tonight.
2. Lessons from last year: The Jayhawks are also hoping to avoid a repeat performance of last year’s blowout loss at Baylor.If you recall, KU had just locked up a share of their ninth straight Big 12 championship before they tipped off against the Bears in Waco. Despite playing for sole possession of the title, the Jayhawks were routed by Baylor, 81-58. It was the widest margin of defeat for KU in seven years. Some crazy things happened in that game, like Cory Jefferson hitting the first three-pointer of his career. In fact, Jefferson didn’t stop there. After failing to make a three-pointer during his entire career, Jefferson went three-for-three from downtown against the Jayhawks, on his way to 25 points. The Bear’s weren’t exactly red-hot going into that game last year. In fact, they’d lost five of six games, leading up to their win over Kansas. And what do you know? The Bears have lost five of six games leading into tonight’s game.
3. Lessons from last month: Many of us were surprised at how much fight we saw from Scott Drew’s team at Allen Fieldhouse back on January 20. Sure, the Jayhawks ended up handling Baylor, 78-68, but it was only a two-point game at halftime, and the Bears never really went away in the 2nd half. Two areas in particular kept Baylor in the game: 1) three point shooting, and 2) rebounding. Isaiah Austin and Brady Heslip combined to go 10 for 17 from beyond the arc. But we know that the Bears can light it up from three-point range on any given night. What was more surprising was that Baylor outrebounded Kansas. In fact, the Bears grabbed 20 offensive rebounds in that game. If the Jayhawks are going to come away with a victory in Waco tonight, they’d be well advised to prevent the Bears from hitting 13 threes and grabbing 20 offensive boards this time around.
4. Lessons from last weekend: You didn’t need a trained basketball eye to know that Kansas struggled offensively down in Austin on Saturday. The Jayhawks have easily been the Big 12’s most efficient offensive team this season, shooting well over 50% from the floor through their first seven games. But the Longhorns defense held KU to just 39% shooting. But the Jayhawks also underperformed on the defensive end against Texas. The Longhorns had their most efficient offensive game since conference play began, as they scored 1.17 points per possession. They did a lot of that damage at the free throw line, where they went 30 for 45. The Jayhawks also came up with just four steals in the game. The Jayhawks must turn things up a notch defensively tonight, if they are to get a win in Waco.
5. Cherry Picking: Adding to the impressiveness of Baylor’s potentially season-saving win at Stillwater was the fact that they did it without the services of their starting point guard, Kenny Chery. The JuCo transfer missed Saturday’s game with a foot injury, and is said to be a game-time decision tonight. Chery is the third-leading scorer on Baylor’s team, at 11 points per game. He also averages five assists per game. But backup Gary Franklin did a solid job filling in for Chery against Oklahoma State. Not many teams can go to the bench and bring in a senior point guard when their starter gets hurt. Scott Drew has that luxury with Franklin. The veteran backup played 33 minutes against the Cowboys, and produced a very Chery-like performance, scoring 11 points and dishing out five assists.
By Nate Bukaty
1. Get Smart: Obviously, Marcus Smart will be the center off attention at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday. It’s not just because he’s the best player on Oklahoma State’s team. And it’s not just because he did a backflip on James Naismith Court after ending the Jayhawks’ 33-game home court winning streak last year. If Smart hadn’t drawn enough attention to himself for those reasons, he added to it at the beginning of this season, when he spoken candidly about highly touted KU freshman Andrew Wiggins. “They are saying he is the best college player there is and he has not even played a game yet,” Smart told USA Today. “Of course that hypes me up. It is all talk. He still has to put his shorts on one leg at a time like I do. It is all potential. I am not saying he can’t do it. But he has not done it yet.” For his part, Wiggins has refused to acknowledge that such comments affect him in any way. But Smart’s words, plus those of his Head Coach Travis Ford (“Wiggins, from what I understand, is the best player to ever play,”) will be remembered by KU fans. And while Wiggins might play it low-key when it comes to bulletin board material, there is evidence that he is motivated by such challenges. After shutting down K-State freshman Marcus Foster, Wiggins said “People say he’s one of the best freshmen, so it’s always good to match up and see where you stand.” Well, on Saturday, Wiggins will get to matchup against one of the best players in the nation. Another chance to see where he stands.
2. Size Matters: Much has been made of the season-ending injury suffered by OSU post player Michael Cobbins. But I’ve also heard some folks downplay the Cowboys’ loss, pointing to the fact that he only averaged 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. But what those people are missing is the fact that Cobbins was a crucial factor for the ‘Pokes on the defensive end. Most noticeably, he led the team in blocked shots at the time of his injury. But the bigger issue is that Cobbins was strong in an area where the Cowboys are week: inside. At 6’8”, 230 pounds, Cobbins was the biggest of all of the Oklahoma State regulars. Kamari Murphy is roughly the same size, minus ten pounds. But now, Murphy is the only real option for the Cowboys inside. The Jayhawks already had the advantage in the paint, but his advantage is only exaggerated by Cobbins’ injury. Kansas must exploit their mismatch in the down low if they are to avenge last year’s loss.
3. Don’t Miss the Point: Over the past month, Naadir Tharpe has grabbed ahold of the point guard spot, and he has not let go. This has been easily one of the most significant developments for the Jayhawks this season. Bill Self said before the year that Tharpe would be perhaps the most important player on the team. With so many great, young athletes on the roster, it was crucial that a veteran point guard lead them properly. Early in the year, Tharpe failed to live up to the responsibility, and he was briefly benched. Butsince league play started, the Junior is averaging over 31 minutes per game. Over that stretch, he’s dished out 16 assists, while committing just five turnovers. And, in the Jayhawks two Big 12 road wins, Tharpe has gone for 17 and 23 points, while missing just four shots in the two games combined. As for leading the Freshmen, Self says of Tharpe, “I think he's done great. I think the guys are looking to him as kind of a rock out there, which maybe we weren't doing early in the season. He's getting his point across.”Tharpe does not need to out-shine his counterpart, Marcus Smart, on Saturday for the Jayhawks to win. But he does need to be the steady veteran hand that sets his young teammates up for success.
4. Can the kids “man up”? After last year’s loss to Oklahoma State, Bill Self said that his team was possibly the most physically soft team he’d ever coached. In particular, Self was unhappy with his team’s inability to keep Marcus Smart off of the offensive glass. Smart grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the game. “He definitely whipped our guards,” Self said. “I mean, he whipped them. That was a physical beatdown.” The ironic thing about the beatdown was that is was perpetrated by a Freshman, against a group of Seniors. This time around, Smart will be older than most of the guys who match up against him. How will the young pups, Seldon and Wiggins, match the more veteran Cowboys from a physical standpoint? The answer to that question will go a long way in deciding the outcome of this game.
5. Get Defensive: According to Ken Pom’s adjusted offensive rankings, Oklahoma State has a top 10 offense. The Cowboys rank ninth in the country under Pom’s system. If you’re wondering, the Jayhawks have already faced two other top 15 offensive teams this season: Duke (2nd) and Oklahoma (9th) and Toledo (13th.) If history is an indication, then KU will need to score at least 84 points to win this game Saturday. See, Kansas did win all three of those games, but they give up exactly 83 points in each one of them. The Blue Devils hit 56% of their shots from the floor, the Rockets hit 46%, and the Sooners shot 45%. None of those field goal numbers would make Bill Self happy. The Jayhawks simply outscored their opponents in those three games. The good news is, Self’s players are so talented that they can win shootouts against some of the best offenses in the nation. But we all know that Self doesn’t like to rely on that. He takes pride in having a team that can knuckle down and get a defensive stop with the game on the line. The Jayhawks have improved greatly in this area as the season has progressed. On Saturday, they’ll have an opportunity to prove it on a big stage, against a really good offense.