- Matt Cox
(1) Kansas vs. (3) Oregon
Initial Thoughts: The Midwest Regional Final is a showdown between two squads seeking redemption - redemption from defeat in last year's Elite 8, when Villanova and Oklahoma sent the Jayhawks and the Ducks packing just one step shy of the ultimate prize in college basketball. Both squads entered this season ranked in the top-5 of the AP poll with high hopes they would get another crack at a trip to the Final 4 and beyond. While Kansas left no doubt that they were worthy of top-5 consideration all year long, an early injury to Dillon Brooks had many questioning if the Ducks were even a top-10 or top-15 caliber team way back in November. But as time has past - and Brooks has healed - Oregon now finds themselves in a rare underdog role against a Kansas team that has been a runaway freight train so far this tournament. With margin of victories of 38, 20 and 32 over their first three games, the Jayhawks haven't been remotely tested since their opening round Big-12 tournament debacle against TCU. So while Kansas has been smooth sailing, the Ducks have endured choppy waters to get to this point, trailing late in their last two games against Rhode Island and Michigan before escaping with some timely shot-making from Brooks and Tyler Dorsey - but unlike in Las Vegas, winning by 5 or 50 is simply irrelevant this time of year.
Oregon on Offense: On paper, this matchup is about as juicy as it gets for a college basketball fan - that is, if you like up-tempo basketball with scoring weapons all over the floor. All eyes will be locked in on the 1v1 wing matchup between a late-blooming, veteran star in Dillon Brooks, against a young phenom prodigy in Josh Jackson. These two will almost surely be matched up against eachother when Oregon has the ball, given Self almost exclusively plays man-to-man. Jackson may be as good of a matchup for Brooks as any team in the country can throw out there, which gives a relative edge to the Jayhawks in this regard. But as of late, it's been the production of the two lesser known Oregon stars - Dorsey and Jordan Bell - that have been critical in the Ducks journey back to the Elite 8. The two combined for 51, 33 and 36 points over the three tournament games so far, which has a taken a huge scoring burden off of Brooks' shoulders. The key in this game will how well Kansas's individual defenders guard the trio of Brooks, Dorsey and Bell, especially with how much Oregon feasts on exploiting mismatches in the half-court. The next two clips are two examples of head coach Dana Altman just putting Brooks and Bell in their favorite spots on the floor and letting them go to work:
In fact, Oregon ranks in the 97th percentile of all division 1 teams in points per possession during iso situations, much of which is due to Brooks' innate ability to score in a variety of ways against any type of defender. The bottom-line is that while Altman will mix in some half-court sets with screening and cutting action, he doesn't get too cute offensively, especially with the talent he has at his disposal. This will certainly challenge the Jayhawks as 1v1 defenders, particularly Jackson, Landen Lucas - who will likely get the Bell matchup - and either Devonte Graham or Frank Mason, whoever Self throws on Dorsey.
Kansas on Offense: So while the offensive side of the ball for Oregon will be won and lost by individual playmaking and defending, a lot more nuances will come into play for the Jayhawks when they get the rock. As aforementioned in 3MW's earlier round previews, Dana Altman mixes up defenses as much as any coach in America, specifically with his multiple zone looks. Look for Oregon to open up the game with some extended zone trapping out of a 1-2-2, which will then drop back into a 2-3 matchup zone (see below):
Altman will then unannounced call for double teams out of the half-court matchup zone, which the Jayhawk guards need to be prepared for on the first pass from point to wing (again, see below):
The veteran Michigan guards did a relatively nice job taking care of the basketball against Oregon last round, so I don't foresee any issue with Mason, Graham and Jackson handling these defensive disguises. And while identifying the defensive structure Oregon sets up in on any given possession is no doubt confusing, the advanced metrics bring some clarity to what the Ducks' D is ultimately trying to do.
Per hoop-math.com, 40% of all field goal attempts against Oregon come at the rim (51st most in the country), and while a good chunk of these attempts are from offensive rebounds and putbacks - one way to get easy buckets against Oregon's zone - a lot of this is actually by design. Oregon will try and sucker opposing offenses to get the ball deep into the lane, whether it be through penetration or interior passing, where a pair of shot-blocking specialists will be patiently waiting licking their chops (Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams). This is where Mason and Jackson have to especially be careful. They should have success getting past the first wave of perimeter defenders, but then will need to be smart in how they go about finishing. Getting all the way to the rim and trying to score against one of the best rim-protecting team in the nation (Oregon ranked #1 in block rate and #13 in FG% defense on all shots at the rim) is a dangerous game. This will mean Mason must be efficient converting his patented floater in the paint, but needs to be looking early and often to kick out to open shooters for 3s - another way Oregon's zone can be beat.
Key Factor(s): If Oregon's guards are sloppy with the basketball against this opportunist Kansas perimeter defense, it could be a long night for the Ducks. The trio of Casey Benson, Peyton Pritchard and Dylan Ennis are each good, not great, ball handlers and decision makers, which will make their offensive precision critical tonight. The Jayhawks thrive on turning live ball turnovers into easy layups and transition 3s on the other end, especially when Mason is leading the break. So not only will the perimeter unit for the Ducks need to take care of the ball, but also retreat back on defense to limit any and all opportunities for the high-octane Kansas fast break. The data says the Ducks have been a disciplined transition defensive group all year long, so they'll need to carry this forward tonight to make sure they limit the Jayhawks' scoring opportunities to the half-court.
Final Predictions: This is a hard Kansas lean for me. It just feels idiotic to go against the momentum the Jayhawks have rolling, especially in a game that also strongly favors them from a matchup perspective. Whether you are a gambling man or just a casual observer of college basketball, get your popcorn ready this evening - this should be an absolute delight to watch, with high-level shotmakers going back and forth for a trip to the Final 4 in Phoenix.