Editor’s Note: This morning in the Nation blog, Myron Medcalf is examining the worst-case scenarios for each of the four 1-seeds. Keep in mind: This is not necessarily his prediction -- simply the most likely cause of a loss before the Final Four for these particular teams.
It’s been weeks since Bill Self told reporters “I don’t have a point guard” following a loss to Oklahoma State.
He’s tweaked those remarks recently, and they’ve been buried by Kansas Jayhawks’ current success; the Jayhawks earned their ninth consecutive Big 12 championship.
But point guards play the most valuable role in the NCAA tournament. One turnover, one botched possession, one messy sequence could be the difference between a win and a loss for any team in the field, especially in a year with so much parity.
Elijah Johnson was not the sole culprit in Kansas’ losses this season. His struggles, however, were certainly pivotal.
Johnson went 18-for-65 from the field and committed 17 turnovers in KU’s five losses, a sign of his vitality within the Jayhawks’ offensive operation.
The Jayhawks could lose in the NCAA tournament if Johnson forces things and makes mistakes. But it’s not that simple. Ben McLemore (16.4 PPG), perhaps this summer’s No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, is the most talented player on the roster.
He’s not easy to stop. Teams have had success, however, when they’ve stayed on his hip and made him work to get touches. Iowa State’s Chris Babb did a great job in the Cyclones' 108-96 loss to the Jayhawks in Ames on Feb. 25. McLemore only took six shots in that game. He made two of them. Babb stuck to him.
Pressuring Johnson and shadowing McLemore are great places to start for any team going after the Jayhawks.
And a successful opponent has to run with the Jayhawks, too. They’re so fluid, blessed with so much athleticism, that they’ll torch any team in the field if they play lazy defense in transition. Even Jeff Withey runs the floor well.
Scoring against the Jayhawks, who rank fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency per ESPN Insider Ken Pomeroy, will be a challenge. They’re sound and disciplined. And KU’s defense just keeps working. That’s how they’ve managed to overcome troubling deficits in short stretches (see that Feb. 25 win at Iowa State). They get stops in critical moments. And the entire NCAA tournament is just one, big critical moment.
Withey (3.8 bpg) is the gatekeeper for one of America’s best defensive units. Even a team strapped with elite big men won’t necessarily succeed against KU with Withey inside. He’s just that good. And he’s only averaging 2.0 fouls per game, proof that he’s a pure shot-blocker.
But the Cyclones -- and other teams like them -- present problems for the Jayhawks because they can play small ball and remove Withey from his inside comfort zone. A team that’s equipped with multiple shooters, especially a real stretch four (think Duke), could force Self to implement lineups that don’t feature his best defender.
“It’s hard to defend them with Jeff. But we can’t win the game without Jeff,” Self said after Iowa State shot 17-for-41 from the 3-point line in that Feb. 25 win.
Iowa State also committed just seven turnovers in the game.
The Cyclones were nearly flawless. But Johnson & Co. overcame that adversity.
I was in Ames that night. Johnson, who scored 39 points, willed the Jayhawks to victory.
They just don’t quit. Any team that’s going to beat KU will need the poise necessary to weather its constant pressure. I don’t care if you’re up by double digits. Kansas is going to make a run at some point.
Most teams can’t handle that momentum switch. But it will be a necessary to achieve an upset against this dangerous squad.