Elite 8 - Saturday Preview: South Regional Final

(1) Kansas vs. (2) Villanova

Initial Thoughts: The south regional final will feature two teams who are on higher trajectories than any other team left in the field.  The  2-seed Villanova Wildcats have won their first three tournament games by an average of 24 points, dismantling Iowa by 19 and Miami by 23.  In that 92-69 rout of the Canes, Nova set the KFC Yum! Center on fire on, posting a 1.60 points per possession clip offensively, their most efficient performance of the year.  It's always nice when you can cash in on 67% of your 3s (10/15) and 95% (18/19) of your free throws.

Despite Novas robotic offense, they still aren't as kerosene-hot as the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks.  Bill Self probably can't remember the last time his team lost, since he'd have to turn his calendar back to January to find the last time that happened (@ Iowa State, where no one wins anyway).  Since that loss at Hilton Coliseum on January 30th, the Jayhawks have rattled off 17-straight wins, 11 of which coming away from Allen Fieldhouse.  A few of these W's were even against decent teams, but I'll let you be the judge of "decent": 

  • Kansas wins since January 30th: Kentucky, West Virginia (twice), @Oklahoma, Baylor (twice), @Texas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Connecticut, Maryland


When I look back in retrospect, I feel like a large fool taking the Terps ATS against Kansas last game, albeit I did still take KU to win outright.  And thanks to Austin Peay missing a 5-footer at the buzzer, I am currently 0-2 ATS fading the Beakers in the tourney.  Perhaps I should think about not doing that anymore ... 

Kansas on Offense: What may be most impressive about Kansas on the offensive end is how consistently they play to their identity.  It's no secret that the Jayhawks are an incredibly efficient shooting team, and rarely, if ever, take tough, contested jumpers in the half-court.  This is why they are the nation's 4th best 3-point shooting team, despite the fact that 241 D1 teams attempted more 3s than they did this year.  While a ton of this is obviously accredited to Graham, Mason and Selden sustaining their excellent long-range shooting clips, they should all be thanking Perry Ellis, who is constantly demanding attention from all 5 opposing defenders on the floor.

Ellis is quietly making a case for POTY, and his emergence over the past month is starting to silent the "Kansas has no go-to-guy" discussions.  Over the past 2 games, Ellis has put up 21 and 27 against two of the biggest frontlines in all of college basketball (UCONN & Maryland), and has done so uber-efficiently (146 O-Rating over that span).  With his newly mastered outside jump shot (44% from 3 this year), he now demands respect stepping away from the basket, which sets up his beloved drive and spin move (which he replicates in post-ups as well).  His versatility allows the Beakers to thrive against smaller 4-guard lineups and larger 2-big lineups, where Ellis can post-up or float on the perimeter, based on his matchup.

So the question comes down to what big Jay Wright will do defensively against Ellis.  The Wildcats throw out the prototype 4-out, 1-in lineup, with four long, versatile guards on the floor at all times, which revolves around Ochefu inside.  Kris Jenkins is technically the starting "4", so my gut-feeling is that he would be the appropriate candidate to match up with Ellis. Against Iowa, he drew the assignment of shadowing Jarrod Uthoff, who has a similar inside-outside skill set that Ellis does (although Uthoff is a little more perimeter oriented).  Uthoff finished with 16 in the game, but a good chunk of that came in transition, where Jenkins was never fully established to guard him.  In the halfcourt possessions when Jenkins did check Uthoff, Jenkins was an absolute pest, using his quick feet and 6'6 240 pound frame to make Uthoff settle for tough pull-ups and mid-range fadeaways. 

Assuming Jenkins does get the Ellis matchup,  I am super intrigued in how he'll fare on the low-block defensively.  From watching Jenkins guard the post in few instances this year, he is excellent at going straight-up without fouling, and should use his body to keep Ellis away from the rim.  While Ellis is clearly capable of scoring over-the-top with his baby hook in the middle of the lane, his offensive efficiency skyrockets when he gets to the free-throw line, given he converts at such a high rate from the stripe (80%).  

Jay Wright also has the option of throwing 6'8 long, rangy junior Darryl Reynolds on Ellis, who doesn't have the strength of Jenkins, but should bother Ellis more inside with his length, and ensure he gets no 2nd chance opportunities on the glass.  

One interesting wrinkle in this game will be how much Nova decides to mix up defenses, specifically with their 1-2-2  three-quarter court and 2-3 matchup zone.  Against Miami, Nova had success with the 1-2-2, with athletic specimen Mikal Bridges up top, and then dropped back into the 2-3 once the ball got across half.  The one area KU has had issues this year offensively is protecting the ball, specifically their guards against pressure.  They are a pedestrian 144th in the country in protecting the ball, and have not seen a team this year with the athletes and length Nova has on the perimeter.  The one exception may be when Kansas played San Diego State, where I watched the Beakers turn the ball over 6 times in an 8 minute stretch in the 2nd half, only to pull away late from an offensively challenged Aztec team. 

Villanova on Offense:  When it comes to half-court offensive execution, "Supernova" does it as well as anybody. And when their 3s are falling, we saw against Miami that there simply isn't a higher offensive ceiling in the country.  

What allows them to get so many open looks, especially from 3, is their unmatched ability to drive and kick, which is supplemented by non-stop off ball movement.  Nova has 5 guards that can all drive, pass and shoot, and none of them think of themselves as an "alpha", which results in extra pass after extra pass for open shots.  

The other offensive punch Nova has as its disposal is on the low-block with big Daniel Ochefu.  While I voiced my concerns with Kansas post-defense a couple weeks ago, these have now evaporated away, thanks to the emergence of Landen Lucas.  While the 5-spot for Self was a "by-committee" position earlier in the year, Lucas has clearly taken the reigns and separated himself from Traylor and the young blue-chip prospects Diallo and Bragg.  Just for context, Lucas played 30 minutes against the Terps last game, while the other 3 bigs played a combined 20 minutes.  People don't appreciate just how massive Lucas is, and he is slowly suring up both KU's interior defense and defensive rebounding flaws, both of which were my primary concerns about this team a month ago.  I have full confidence he will bang on the block with Ochefu for 25-30 minutes in this one, and I don't see Ochefu getting anything easy inside, either in post-ups or on the offensive glass.

Therefore, the fate of the Wildcats will lie with their guard play, which has been the strength of Jay Wright teams for over a decade now.  Kansas typically extends their guard pressure way beyond the 3-point line, limiting opposing 3-point attempts and forcing guards to beat their elite defenders off the dribble.  This is what was mind-boggling about the Maryland game, as Terps guards were complacent to settle for outside jumpers instead of attacking the Jayhawks defenders off the bounce, which is where Trimble, Sheed and Layman should've been more effective.  

While the Wildcats are equally as likely to settle for long 3s, especially after their unconscious shooting performance two nights ago, no group of guards in the country is as good finishing inside as the Nova backcourt.  While a lot of this does come from off-ball cutting and guard-to-guard assists inside, when you rank 3rd in the country in BOTH 2-point FG% and FT%, it makes a ton of sense to attack the rim relentlessly.  And because Lucas is the only real shot-blocker for this team, this is precisely what Nova should do all night against the Beakers.

Key Factor(s): When KU is most efficient scoring the basketball, they do so by supplementing their precise half-court attack with easy buckets in transition.  The Beakers are excellent in the open-court and actively seek to push the tempo off turnovers and long rebounds.  While Villanova doesn't turn it over a ton, they are vulnerable when teams look to fast-break against them. The Wildcats ranked 257th in the country in allowing transition possessions for their opponents, something the Jayhawks guards will try to exploit in the right situations.

Do I Trust the Coaches?: Kansas: Yes .... Villanova: Yes?  While Bill Self is no-doubt trustworthy, both as a game preparer and in-game adjuster, Jay Wright gives me a slight pause.  I continue to think he's an excellent developer of players and "molder of pieces", which is why his squads are always so unselfish and so good, despite lacking the top-tier talent many of the other elite programs enjoy.  Me and my colleague @2ndChancePoints (Jim Root) both have a sour taste in our mouth from the large dump Nova took against NC State in Round 2 last year. 

Predictions: This should be an extremely high-level game, with both teams challenging one another with their half-court execution.  While the KU guards come and go with their big games, Perry Ellis continues to be steady engine that propels the Jayhawk offense.  I will find out in the first 5-10 minutes of this game if I was right about Jenkins and Reynolds being effective matchups for him, as Self will surely go to him early in ISO situations.  If they can keep Ellis from getting easy inside looks, and contest his jumpers when he steps away from the lane, the battle of the bigs will probably end up being a wash in this one.  In other words, the guards should determine which team marches on the Houston.  

The difference here is that Villanova has more perimeter depth than the Beakers, which will be a factor if the whistle is tight and both teams are penetrating relentlessly in the half-court.  I've already seen Graham, Mason and Selden all get into foul trouble against Austin Peay in round 1, when the Governor guards put their heads down and drove it recklessly.  If the Wildcats can replicate this offensive aggression, KU will have their hands full stopping penetration by the elite Nova guards. I'm probably going to regret fading the Jayhawks (again), but I give the slight edge to the Wildcats in this one.  

SU Pick: Villanova
ATS Pick: Villanova +2
O/U Pick: Over 144.5