Kansas upset the number two ranked team in the nation, Baylor, on Saturday, 71-58, as a 5-point favorite. Hopefully, TDG regulars were not surprised by that result since that was our ESPN Game of the Year on the Jayhawks. We had observed at the time that Kansas was going into the month of March a much-improved team on defense. We wrote in the game report:
“After a schematic change by Bill Self to play more aggressively against ball-screens, Kansas has held their last five opponents to 38.4% shooting which is resulting in 58.2 points-per-game in the rugged Big 12. Bettors need to keep their eyes on the lookout for late-season improvements from teams that get elite coaching especially in a pandemic-ridden season where practice schedules earlier in the year have been out of the ordinary. This Jayhawks’ team is evolving into a scrappy defense-first juggernaut.”
Kansas came to play on defense by holding the Bears to 34.8% shooting while coaxing them to miss 17 of their 23 shots from the 3-point land for a 23.1% clip. Baylor entered that game shooting 50.3% from the field and making 43.2% of their 3-pointers. As Bears’ Scott Drew claimed that a layoff from COVID was his team’s “kryptonite,” head coaches often reach for excuses in the face of frustrating defensive play.
The plight of the blue blood programs in college basketball has been of the storylines this season. Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State are all at risk of not making the NCAA Tournament. We wrote about the trials and tribulations for these traditional powers in college football and college basketball during this year where COVID has impacted every program. As we observed in December about Duke and Kentucky: “These are two programs that need practice and coaching.” As the calendar turns to March, both of those basketball teams along with the Spartans have seen significant improvement in play over the last few weeks.
Keep your eye out for freshman taking their games to the next level in March. The Jayhawks have a talented redshirt freshman in Jalen Wilson. The four-star recruit did not see the court much last year but has stepped up this season to average 12.6 points-per-game with 8.4 rebounds-per-game. In his nine games in February, Wilson improved his scoring average to a 13.3 points-per-game clip while pulling down 11.0 rebounds-per-game. First-year players improve especially when they are getting great coaching.
Kansas temporarily fell out of the top-25 in early February after losing five of seven games. All five of those losses were on the road to nationally-ranked teams. The inclusion of the Jayhawks in the plight of the blue-bloods narrative has always been a stretch. Perhaps Kansas is not a top-five team this season as they were last year when their 28-3 record had them destined to take one of the four top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss Self’s ability to navigate this team to another final four appearance in the first weekend in April.
Good luck - TDG.