NCAA Tournament: Michigan vs. Kansas Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who:No. 4 Michigan (28-7, 12-6 B1G) vs. No. 1 Kansas (31-5, 14-4 B12) Kansas[1]
Where: Cowboys Stadium (Arlington, TX)
When: 7:37 p.m., Friday, March 29th, 2013
Radio: MGoBlue, 950 AM, 102.9 FM
MoreScouting Report, Game Plan, First Take, Press Conference, Locker Room Videos

Michigan hasn’t been to a Sweet Sixteen in nearly 20 years while Kansas has been to at least the Sweet Sixteen in five of the last six years.

The Jayhawks have a senior laden rotation and a storied tradition while the Wolverines have the youngest roster in the NCAA tournament. The contrast is blatant but the pressure is uniform. Everyone knows what’s at stake as both teams edge closer toward a trip to Atlanta.

Michigan and Kansas will take the floor in the South Regional semifinal tonight on a stage fit for the occasion with the gargantuan Cowboys Stadium jumbotron hovering above and greater than 40,000 fans packed into the seats.

But when the ball is tipped, this is just another college basketball game between two great, and surprisingly equally matched teams. The team that manages to play a better 40 minutes lives to play another day and moves one step closer to its ultimate goal: The Final Four.


Tempo Free Profile

Kansas is a defense first outfit, ranked fifth nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The Jayhawks have the best effective field goal percentage defense in the nation; allowing opponents to shoot just 38.7% on twos (1st) and 30.2% on threes (27th). That means it’s harder to make shots against Kansas than Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State – the teams responsible for five of Michigan’s six worst shooting performances. The Jayhawks are a good defensive rebounding outfit, rebounding 71% of their opponents’ misses, and led the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage this season.

Forcing missed shots and cleaning up the defensive glass is generally considered a fail proof defensive strategy, but Kansas has struggled at times to force turnovers and prevent free throw attempts. Kansas ranks 7th in forced turnover percentage and 6th in free throw rate allowed among the ten Big 12 teams. The Jayhawks don’t force many turnovers because they don’t really need to and foul trouble has only proved fatal once, in a 62-55 loss to TCU that saw the Jayhawks commit 29 fouls and allow the Horned Frogs 38 free throw attempts to just 46 field goal attempts.

Kansas ranks 31st in adjusted offensive efficiency and scored 1.06 points per trip in Big 12 play, fourth best in the league. The Jayhawks are a good shooting team – 53% on twos, 36% on threes, 53% eFG% for the season; 49/35/50 in Big 12 play – but make their hay at the free throw line. Kansas attempted 44 free throws per 100 field goal attempts in Big 12 play; that’s best in the conference and comparable to Indiana’s similar dominance at the charity stripe. The Jayhawks are a good offensive rebounding team, grabbing 36% of their misses in Big 12 play (2nd), but turnovers are their Achilles’ heel. Kansas turns the ball over once every five possessions and turnover rate has a stronger correlation to the Jayhawks’ offensive efficiency than anything other than shooting.

Players & Matchups

Jeff Withey will be the first name on the scouting report for the Wolverines – on both ends of the floor. Withey is a game changing shot blocker with the unusual, and underrated, ability to keep the ball in play while blocking shots. On the offensive end he’s a post up threat but more importantly a skilled cutter and even better finisher at the rim. Withey averages 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in 31 minutes per game and draws five fouls per 40 minutes.

If Withey is first on the scouting report, Ben McLemore won’t be far behind. The freshman All-American is averaging 16 points, five rebounds and two assists per game and is one of the best wing scorers in the country. McLemore is in a shooting slump but he’s too talented not to demand the full attention of Michigan’s perimeter defense.

Elijah Johnson mans the point guard position and while he’s Bill Self’s leading assist man, he also turns the ball over on over a quarter of his possessions used. He’s having the worst shooting season of his career as a senior and is shooting just 43% on twos and 33% on threes. The one advantage he does have against Trey Burke is size, Johnson will look to use his 6-foot-4 frame to slow down Burke at 6-foot.

Travis Releford is an extremely efficient but low usage player on the wing. He’s devastating in transition and capable from three point range; shooting 66% on twos and 42% on threes. Releford was the star in Kansas’ round of 32 win over North Carolina, scoring 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Releford is known as Bill Self’s lockdown defender and he’s likely to get his shot at Trey Burke but should also spend significant time defending Tim Hardaway Jr.

Kevin Young rounds out the starting line up and while his statistical profile isn’t gaudy, he’s the sort of versatile glue player that can hold things together for the Jayhawks. Young is 6-foot-8 and ranked nationally in block and steal percentage, also proving to be an able finisher at the rim (60%). While Withey and McLemore will garner the headlines, one of the unsung defensive matchups will be Glenn Robinson III’s ability to keep Kevin Young off of the offensive glass. Young is the best offensive rebounder on the Jayhawk roster and has a size advantage against Robinson.

Three Keys

Pull Jeff Withey away from the basket

Michigan’s offense needs to figure out a way to pull Jeff Withey away from the basket or force him into foul trouble. According to Synergy Sports, Kansas ranks better than the 80th percentile in ball screen defense against both the ball handler and the roll man. Despite the Jayhawks’ apparent strength at defending the ball screen, I’m not sure Michigan has a better option to pull Withey away from the basket. The onus will fall on Trey Burke and Mitch McGary to make plays in the ball screen game and begin to open up the Jayhawk defense – that means Burke hitting perimeter jumpshots to force a harder hedge and McGary finishing when he catches the ball in the paint.

Force the tempo

The transition game is critical for both teams but especially for Michigan. The Jayhawk defense is significantly better in half court settings. The Jayhawks surrender 1.02 points per transition possession, which ranks in just the 60th percentile nationally, compared to .733 points per half court possession (94th percentile). Michigan’s offense is more effective in transition (although its half court offense actually ranks more favorably when stacked up against other teams offenses) scoring 1.21 points per transition possession and .95 points per half court set. The good news is that Kansas wants to play fast; the Jayhawks average just short of 68 possessions per game, a discernible difference from a Michigan team that averaged just 63 possessions per game in Big Ten play.

Limit free throws and force turnovers

The key statistics on the defensive end will be fouls, free throws and turnovers. Michigan needs to negate Kansas’ best offensive strength – getting to the free throw line – and doing so will also ensure that Mitch McGary can stay on the court. Michigan isn’t good at forcing turnovers – its forced turnover percentage of 18.8% ranks 237th nationally – but the easy buckets that could result from Jayhawk miscues are invaluable. Kansas will score its fair share of points but the key to Michigan’s defense is creating opportunities for its offense: turnovers and clean rebounds that led to transition offense.

Bottom Line

Ken Pomeroy likes Michigan by a hair, giving the Wolverines a one point advantage in his projection: 69-68 in a 66 possession game. Three years ago when these two teams played, the talent gap between both programs was staggering, although Michigan battled back on its home floor to force overtime it was clear that the Wolverine roster didn’t stack up against the Jayhawks.

Looking at the two rosters on paper today, that gap is essentially eliminated. Both teams have pros on their rosters and are ranked almost identically; No.8 and No. 9 in Ken Pomeroy’s rating system. This game doesn’t look like one that will come down to some sort of radical mismatch or fatal flaw, rather whichever team can execute its game plan more effectively and play the better game..

  • mistersuits

    Go Blue!

  • MGoTweeter

    I think this is right. Although the two teams play different styles, talent wise they are pretty equal.

    Two less talked about keys that I think will be critical tonight, 1. does GRIII keep Young off the boards and Ellis off the score sheet, and, 2. does Michigan get quality penetration on offense from the other guys, meaning Stauskas, Robinson and Albrecht/LeVert.

    I imagine that Kansas is going to play a Wisconsin style of defense. Keep Withey in the middle and back to challenge shots like Berggren. Everyone else key on Burke and force the role players to step up. I also think on offense that Kansas will use their 4 man (Young on the boards mainly and Ellis in the post) to attack GRIII as much as possible.

    How well the studs play in obviously going to be a huge factor tonight, but assuming they all show up, the quality of play from the other guys on Michigan is going to be very important.

  • gpsimms

    I don’t know, this feels like a bad matchup to me. Unlike VCU, Kansas plays great defense whether we turn the ball over or not. Our offense is at its best when we are shooting well and rebounding. No one really shoots well against Kansas, and I think we will struggle on the glass.

    Kansas plays good offense except when you turn them over, we don’t really turn people over. Kansas is a good shooting team and everyone shoots well against our defense. Whithey is the type of big that can really make McGary look like a freshman (please JMo come back!).

    Hope I’m wrong, of course! Go Blue!

    -debbie downer

    • mikey_mac

      I agree with all of this, but I’m trying to be optimistic. They don’t have great ball handlers, so if our backcourt applies some pressure and we get proper help defense/rotations, we may force turnovers without really trying.

  • mikey_mac

    In the half-court, we really need to attack McLemore and Young. This would be a great opportunity for GR3 to show he can drive and score more than once a game, and start to make some sense of his fringe lottery pick projection. McLemore will likely cover Stauskas. If Nik can run hard off picks, he can get enough space to attack the rim on McLemore.

    We also need Burke to be very aggressive on defense against Johnson and force turnovers … it’s our one clear opportunity to create fast-break points. McGary could also be helpful here, as opponents just always seem to forget about his steals once or twice a game.

  • Mandingo

    I agree the match-up is pretty even on talent, if not experience. Unfortunately I think Kansas pulls it out, simply based on how Michigan has struggled to dictate tempo in games against defensively-strong outfits away from Ann Arbor (most notably the Wisconsin games, but also away to OSU and MSU). I know Kansas likes to run a bit more than the B1G defensive teams, but I would bet that Self has the Jayhawks play much more methodically, and Michigan seems to fall into that style of play if a strong defensive team is really insisting on it. Really really hope that I am wrong, of course.

  • Champswest

    This is the new Michigan. On to the Elite Eight.

  • AADave

    Seems like a toss up. Whoever is hotter today will win. Sweet sixteen and on it seems like it’s mostly luck which determines the winner.

    That being said, the outcome seems to hinge on the Withey-McGary/Morgan/Horford matchup. If this is a draw or better for Michigan, I like our chances. That means holding our own on the boards and interior play. Of course, we will still need Burke to play more up to par and get decent production from the trio of Stauskas/Hardaway/Robinson. We can survive an off night from one of these three but probably not two out of three.

  • rlcBlue

    Great stuff as always, Dylan.

    There were a few statements I felt like modifying, though. I’d say for both teams reaching the Final Four is the penultimate goal; the ultimate goal is winning the national championship, and it’s a goal that both teams have a realistic chance of achieving. It is wide open this year.

    I did a double-take at “The Jayhawks are a good defensive rebounding outfit,” and went to the numbers: KU’s DR% is 29.2%, good for 68th in the country. Michigan’s, on the other hand, is 29.2%, 69th in the country. So, I think KU’s defensive rebounding can be taken advantage of – I know ours can. Which team does better on the defensive glass may be the determining factor in the game.

    Kevin Young has a height advantage on GRIII, but according to their listed weights he’s 20 lbs lighter. KU’s starters, at least, are much less bulky than the B1G squads we’ve faced. Freshmen Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor will no doubt eventually have bodies in the Thomas Robinson/Morris twins mold, but at the moment they’re not that big. I’m not sure Glenn will get pushed around that much tonight.

  • Wayman Britt

    I don’t care how many points Mitch and GR3 scored the last 2 games or if they have their offense games back, if UM wants to win tonight it will depend on how Mitch and GR3 play defense. If they play 40 minutes of tough, aggressive, consistent defense we have a chance. The key will be 40 minutes or more of ‘D’. Just look at Cuse for an example of why defense wins in the tourney.

  • Chazer

    Really like UM tonight as they have been very good against teams who have not played them. I’m not ready for the season to end and think they play better as the underdog.

    Hoping for a Syracuse UM game next week. Love to see UM pick apart that 2-3 zone… Beilein knows it really well. Crean certainly got schooled last night.

    Go blue!

  • DrRon

    Yeah, the matchup here is not as favorable as it was against VCU, but the end result against them was a 25 pt win. We cant expect anything like that here. Force turnovers, generate layups like Michigan did against MSU at home, and make some opwn threes and we have a great chance. Whhich is the best you hope for in a Sweet Sixteen game.

    Go blue!

  • plane1972

    Hoosier fan here. Tough one for us last night. Pulling for you guys tonight and the rest of the way. Good luck and bring one home for the B1G!

  • DrRon

    Yeah, the matchup here is not as favorable as it was against VCU, but the end result against them was a 25 pt win. We cant expect anything like that here. Force turnovers, generate layups like Michigan did against MSU at home, and make some opwn threes and we have a great chance. Whhich is the best you hope for in a Sweet Sixteen game.

    Go blue!

  • gobluemd16

    I think we see a Michigan WIN today! Let’s be optimistic, it isn’t the best matchup but I think if we play well, we will win. The only major concern with me is obviously Withey down low, but I am actually also concerned about the game being in Cowboys Stadium. It has been said by players/coaches that it is MUCH harder to shoot because there is no real background which prevents good depth perception for shooters. To be honest, that hurts us more than them. I can never f-ing understand why they play in football stadiums (cash cow), and can’t just play in big college arenas or pro stadiums. Either way GO BLUE! WE ON