NCAA Tournament: Michigan vs. Kansas Preview

Basics
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
TV: TBS
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.

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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..

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