Scouting Kansas

Dylan Burkhardt

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Travis Releford, Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Kevin Young and Elijah Johnson

Kansas is never short on talent on this year is no exception. The Jayhawks have the 2nd, 26th and 98th best players on the latest Draft Express Top 100 ranking in Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson respectively. Michigan has its share of NBA talent, No. 10, 20, 46 and 83 on the same list, but will face a significant challenge against Bill Self’s team.

The Jayhawks have the talent to provide some difficult matchups and are a top-10 team according the Ken Pomeroy; on the season Michigan is just 2-6 against KenPom top-10 teams. To further breakdown Friday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup we dug deeper into the numbers to utilize data fueled by  Ken Pomeroy, Hoop-Math and Synergy Sports and examined the top seven players in the Jayhawk rotation.

#23 Ben McLemore
6-foot-5, 195 lbs, freshman. 32.0 mins, 15.8 pts, 5.3 rebs, 2.0 asts, 59.7% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Underrated: Defender
Weakness: Pick and roll

McLemore is a pro. He has all of the tools and frame of a solid NBA guard and he’s lethally efficient while taking the highest percentages of Kansas’ shots.

A majority of his half court offense comes spotting up on the wing. McLemore shoots a no dribble jumper 68% of the time when catching the ball on the wing and he scores a lethal 1.47 points per attempt. For a frame of reference, Nik Stauskas averages 1.46 points per spot up no dribble jumper; McLemore is a legitimate shooting threat. While Michigan will have to run him off the line, he’s s also a threat to put the ball on the floor. He prefers to go left (all of his pull up jumpers are to the left) but he’s capable of getting to the basket in either direction.

McLemore’s weakness appears to be creating his own offense as just 14.2% of his offense originates from screen and rolls (including passes) and 5.8% originates in isolation scenarios (including passes). Kansas scores just .71 points per McLemore ball screen which is the worst mark on the team.

McLemore has the rep of a big time scorer but he actually grades out to be Kansas’ best defender according to the numbers in Synergy Sports.

#24 Travis Releford
6-foot-6, 210 lbs, senior. 33.6 mins, 11.8 pts, 3.8 rebs, 2.5 asts, 64.4% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Underrated: Ball screen player
Weakness: Midrange

Releford leads Kansas is minutes per game but uses fewer offensive possessions than any other Jayhawk. His selectiveness pays off as he’s the most efficient player on the Kansas roster and the 24th most efficient in the country.

Releford is the most effective transition player in the country (minimum 70 possessions):

Nat. Rank Player Team % Time PPP eFG%
1 Travis Releford Kansas 31.5% 1.487 81.4%
7 Tim Hardaway Jr Michigan 19.8% 1.422 75.9%
58 Ben McLemore Kansas 20.9% 1.284 63.7%
65 Glenn Robinson III Michigan 19.8% 1.277 70.0%
259 Trey Burke Michigan 20.5% 1.113 59.9%

Michigan has its fair share of efficient transition players but Releford sets the standard. Preventing transition opportunities will have to be near the top of the scouting report for the Wolverines. Releford’s not a bad half court player by any means but nothing on his scouting report jumps off the page like his lethal transition game.

Releford is a great player from three point range (41%) and at the rim (76%) but he struggles with the middle game. He rarely settles for midrange shots 17% of FGAs) and he’s shooting just 39% on those attempts.

Releford has used fewer ball screens than Tharpe, Johnson and McLemore this season but he’s by far Kansas’ most effective player when utilizing the pick and roll. The Jayhawks score on 52% of Releford’s ball screens (including passes) compared to under 40% for the other Jayhawk guards.

For reference, Michigan scores on 54% of Nik Stauskas’s ball screens, 50% of Spike Albrecht’s and 45% of Trey Burke’s. Burke has been involved in 427 ball screen possessions this season, more than Kansas’ top four players combined.

#15 Elijah Johnson
6-foot-4, 195 lbs, senior. 31.2 mins, 9.8 pts, 3.1 rebs, 4.7 asts, 46% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Weakness: Transition

As Luke Winn pointed out in February, Johnson has been a very streaky shooter throughout his career but has shot the ball well in March but that hasn’t been the case this season. Through eight games this March, Johnson is shooting 34% on twos and 27% on threes. Since the calendar hit 2013 he isn’t much better: 40% on twos and 30% on threes.

Johnson’s play type splits aren’t much more encouraging. He’s best spotting up and rates poorly in transition and pick and roll situations. While he scores 1.5 points per unguarded jump shot, he’s scoring just .65 points per guarded jump shot; a radical difference.

Johnson uses more ball screens than any other Kansas player but the Jayhawks score just .84 points per ball screen (including passes), that’s slightly better than McLemore but worse than Releford and Tharpe. As a team, Kansas rarely features the ball screen as just 11.5% of its offensive possessions end with ball screen action, just over half of Michigan’s 20.4%.

#5 Jeff Withey
7-foot, 235 lbs, senior. 30.7 mins, 13.8 pts, 8.5 rebs, .9 asts, 58.6% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Cuts to the basket
Underrated: Blocking shots in bounds
Weakness: Offense away from the basket

Withey’s shot blocking and size draws most of the headlines but he’s an effective offensive player as well. Withey scores the ball in three ways: posting up (46%), cutting to the basket (22%) and on the offensive glass (11%). Withey scores .84 points per post up, 1.58 points per cut and 1.33 points per put-back. Almost half of Withey’s post-ups come from the right block. When he’s on the right block he prefers to go over his left shoulder; on the left block he’s comfortable and balanced to either side.

Kansas throws the ball to Withey in the post a fair amount but his 1.58 points per cutting field goal attempt is off the charts. Withey is the most efficient finisher when cutting to the basket among players with at least 65 attempts, Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III ranks 8th on that list. When Kansas guards get in the lane, or Kevin Young gets the ball on the block, they are almost always looking to throw the ball up to Withey who uses his size to catch and finish over small defenders. The two post look could be particularly troublesome for Michigan as Young’s action on the low block is reminiscent of Ryan Evans posting up Robinson and dishing to Jared Berggren.

Withey’s defense can’t be underrated, not only does he block as many shots as anyone in the country; most of the shots he blocks remain in bounds. Luke Winn has it covered:


#40 Kevin Young
6-foot-8, 190 lbs, senior. 22.6 mins, 7.6 pts, 6.7 rebs, 1.2 asts, 54.8% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Residual action
Underrated: Glue guy
Weakness: Jump shot

Young is the glue guy in the Kansas offense. He scores off of a lot of residual action (cuts to the baskets and put backs) but isn’t nearly as efficient as Glenn Robinson III in similar situations. While he isn’t an inefficient player, Young’s ability to influence the game without scoring is most notable. He is the best Kansas offensive rebounder, a very good defensive rebounder and also ranked nationally in block and steal percentage.

Per Hoop-Math, Young is shooting just 29% on two point jumpers and hasn’t made a three all season. He’s not a threat to score if he’s not finishing at the rim, where he shoots 57%.

#1 Naadir Tharpe
5-foot-11, 170 lbs, sophomore. 19 mins, 5.6 pts, 1.5 rebs, 2.9 asts, 47.1% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Ball screens
Underrated: Zone buster
Weakness: Finishing

Tharpe is Bill Self’s backup guard of choice and he’s not much more efficient than Elijah Johnson. Tharpe’s lack of size hurts him finishing at the rim (and in transition) but he’s not a bad jumpshooter and is comfortable creating for himself off of a ball screen or spotting up on the wing.

Johnson and Releford both have awful numbers against zone defense but Tharpe’s production against the zone is sterling: 1.38 points per possession. While McLemore (1.06 PPP) and Withey (1.43 PPP) are both very good zone options, Tharpe’s ability to not turn the ball over (4.8% zone turnover rate) differentiates him from Johnson (24% zone turnover rate) and Releford (31% zone turnover rate).

#34 Perry Ellis
6-foot-8, 225 lbs, freshman. 13.6 mins, 5.8 pts, 3.9 rebs, .5 asts, 48.0% eFG%
Favorite Offense:
Post up
Weakness: Left block

Roughly 38% of Ellis’s offensive possessions come on the low block and while he’s split fairly even (52% right, 42% left, 6% middle) in terms of distribution he’s significantly more effective on the right block. Ellis scores 1.03 points per post up on the right compared to .63 points per post up on the left block.

  • Dyenimator

    This is great. Thanks!

  • David

    Great post.

    Dylan, what did you think of the Grandland article on NDSU? It really stood to me how happy NDSU were about facing U-M over MSU, and how little respect they had for our defense. Really interesting.

    • Mattski

      Great piece. Shows that starting McGary was a bold stroke. Really curious how Beilein will manage the bigs on Friday.

    • mstein23

      “Let’s play Michigan”. Wonder if they still feel the same way. :)
      Thanks for posting. Very interesting read.

  • Mandingo

    Good post– while I was very happy with Michigan’s draw through to the Sweet Sixteen, this seems like a very bad match-up for the Wolverines (unless Kansas goes into a shooting funk a la the Western Kentucky game, but UM never seems that lucky). I think some of the Wolverine’s issues were concealed by the draw in the first weekend, since SDSU and VCU are small teams that don’t have effective half-court defenses. Michigan’s going to eat teams like that alive. But Kansas is pretty large, and their defense is nasty. I don’t like UM’s chances if the game turns into a half-court grinder. The one bright spot I see is that the Jayhawks turn the ball over A LOT, but UM hasn’t excelled in forcing turnovers, unfortunately.

    • David

      I agree. I think this is a bad match-up for us. I was really hoping we’d draw NC.

      • David

        That being said, if I’m Kansas, I’d be pretty pissed to have to draw a 4 seed with 5 NBA-level talents. Vegas odds about even — could have been a much better draw for them as well.

  • ZRL

    Great post. I can’t believe how detailed Synergy is sometimes. Dylan, does Synergy have any stats about Kansas’ pick and roll defense? I think our strategy will involve a ton of ball screens to draw Withey away from the basket. When I watched Kansas play in their first 2 rounds part of the reasons Withey was blocking so many shots is because players were driving off of isos, which allowed Withey to stay in the paint and swat shots as a help-side defender.

  • rlcBlue

    Great stuff as usual, Dylan. One minor nit is that Tharpe is a sophomore, not a senior. KU has enough of an experience edge as is.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    i hate Kevin Young and Releford game there both suckers on the court for this kansas team…we ave much more talented players…they have experience…GO BLUE

    • Mattski

      Save your hate, man. There are bigger things. Okay, I admit–I hate their happiness in that picture. I also dislike enormous athletic centers like Withey, and prefer a weaving offense with nothing but athletes to the low-post game. If there’s anything I would wish it’s that Beilein crushes the myth that you’ve got to have it to win in the B1G.

      I say this and then McGary and Doyle will become dominant forces down low, showing Beilein’s adaptability once again.

      • ZRL

        We won a share of the big 10 last year with a lot less talent and a minimal low post game, and were within a tip-in of winning it again this year. I don’t think anyone is still doubting that Beilein can win in the B1G without a dominant inside presence.

  • mstein23

    That’s some great analysis, Dylan
    Just a couple of observations from watching the KU-UNC game. Obviously, KU was terrible in taking care of the ball with 22 TO’s (& I think they avg. 16/game). Anything near that vs UM will help fuel our transition offense. KU also did a poor job of feeding the post to Withey in the half court. McAdoo fronted him and multiple passes where either thrown away or tipped. So if half of his offense comes from posting up, I think McGary’s bulk and propensity to get steals on entry passes can bother him. The key will be keeping him off the offensive glass.
    Also, re: Withey’s shot blocking, he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with. But Trey is our primary penatrator, and he’s very good at the running floater, as well as getting to the basket, drawing contact, hanging and finishing. It will be interesting to see how Trey attacks, and whether Nick and Tim are hesitant to get in the lane as well.
    Really looking forward to the matchup.

  • mwolverine1

    How do we defend them? Burke’s giving up 4-5 inches to McLemore and Johnson, so those may be tough matchups for us.

  • Ironhawk62

    The only way your’e going to beat KU is by scoring lights out at the arc. Michigan players will not know how Kansas defense is really superior to any other team Michigan has played this year. Yeah Yeah, you guy’s were in the best conference this year but you did not win your conference or the BIG10 tourney. The name’s on back of Michigan jersey’s are some great names but those are there DAD’s accomplishment’s and not the son’s. Let’s see Friday what this Michigan team accomplish’s because really they have not got any hardware to back up all the loving there getting from the media and the so called experts. You guy’s just don’t realize Kansas is past playing poorly, they have played poorly like this in the first two rounds of the NCAA’s for years, they know there in a fight here on out and they will come out Friday and bust Michigan in the mouth. I know I’am being a donkey’s back side but realize this, Michigan certainly does have a great opportunity to win, let’s wait tell Friday and see what happen’s. P S, If Kansas win’s against Michigan , Kansas is going to be 2013 NCAA champion’s!!!

    • GentlemanScholar

      You simply sound silly. A KU homer who found his way to a UM board couldn’t find something more insightful to provide to the discussion?

    • Jeff

      3/10. Kind of a week effort, although in your last sentence, you pay Michigan a huge compliment without realizing it.

      • Ironhawk62

        Dude, wait until Friday, I’ll be back either way. Michigan is a great talented team I know I gave them a great compliment. But good Luck!