ARLINGTON, Texas – The comments have become familiar and repetitive.
Kansas opponents, after struggling to make four of 10 shots against the Jayhawks, typically talk about their own shortcomings. “We got good shots,” Western Kentucky players said after making 20 percent of their second half shots. “We got good looks, they just didn’t go down,” North Carolina players said after shooting 30 percent in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament loss.
The Jayhawks lead the nation in field goal percentage defense. It’s a major reason why they’re a No. 1 seed and will face No. 4 Michigan (28-7) in the South Regional semifinal here Friday (6:37 p.m., TBS). The winner advances to Sunday’s regional final and will face the winner of the Florida vs. Florida Gulf Coast University game.
But it has become a little humorous that KU foes bemoan missed shots and – other than acknowledging the shot-blocking presence of Jeff Withey – rarely acknowledge the fact that for the Jayhawks (31-5), defense is Job One.
“First of all, the coaches tell us, ‘guard your man,’” said senior Travis Releford, who must be a good listener because he’s one of the Big 12’s top perimeter defenders. “Then they break down what the opponent does, what they don’t like to do.”
Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst who worked Big 12 Big Monday games and dozens of other conference games, will be working Dial Global Radio broadcast as an analyst. He said Thursday that Kansas wants to make the other team “play left handed.”
“Kansas does a great job of scouting opponents, letting their players know the strengths of weaknesses of the other team,” he said. “Kansas does a great job of trying to take away your strengths and then taking advantage of your weaknesses.”
“Even if we give people shots, it's not shots that they're used to taking,” he said. “We try to get them in different spots or try to get them to go to a different rhythm or something they're not 100 percent comfortable with. If you're going to get shots, we're not going to give you the shots you want.”
Fraschilla described Kansas vs. Michigan as the classic yin and yang game. The Kansas defense wants to slow a highly efficient Michigan offense. The Kansas offense needs to score enough against a Michigan defense that struggled when the team went 6-6 prior to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan averages 75 points per game and is shooting 48 percent. Wolverines coach John Beilein is known for his ability to adapt his offensive schemes to his personnel. This year, he has relied on point guard Trey Burke, a sophomore who averages nearly 19 points and 6.7 assists per game. He’s a major reason why Michigan leads the nation fewest turnovers per game (9.3) and in assist/turnover ratio.
“Coach Beilein constantly tells us the more turnovers we have, the less chance we have to win,” Burke said. “We trust our offense and it allows us to get in a rhythm and get good shots.”
The Wolverines start three freshmen. Kansas will seek to pressure the Wolverines into mistakes.
“We need to force them to make mistakes,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We can’t give them easy baskets. When you’ve got a point guard like (Burke), he makes the game easier for everyone else.”
Over the last month, the game hasn’t been easy for Kansas’ leading scorer. Freshman Ben McLemore had his worst game of the season in Sunday’s victory over North Carolina, scoring just two points on free throws. Other than a KU freshman-record 35 points in the Jayhawks’ final home game, McLemore has been held under his average in 10 of the last 11 games.
“Ben's the key to our team,” Releford said. “We're going to need him moving forward. “We tell him, just keep playing. We got his back. He's new to this, he's never been out in this type of environment. So for him to struggle those first two games like that, it's not a big deal or surprising. We're looking for him to have a great weekend.”
If McLemore continues to struggle, the Jayhawks’ margin for error shrinks. Against Michigan, Self believes that limiting the Wolverines to one shot per possession, getting easy baskets by forcing turnovers and getting extra shots via offensive rebounds will be the keys.
“What we’ve hung our hat on over the last month, we’ve defended pretty well and we’ve rebounded it well,” Self said. “No matter what, our defense has been pretty constant.
“If our mind set is we’re gonna outscore teams, we’re gonna get beat. We can’t allow a team to feel comfortable on offense for 40 minutes.”
No. 1 Kansas (31-5) vs. No. 4 Michigan (28-7)
6:37 p.m. Friday; Arlington, Texas; TBS.
Why they're here: Kansas won the automatic bid from the Big 12 Conference and the Jayhawks defeated Western Kentucky, 64-57, and North Carolina, 70-58, to advance to the regional semifinals. Michigan was an at-large selection from the Big Ten Conference and the Wolverines defeated South Dakota State, 71-56, and VCU, 78-53, to advance to the regional semifinals.
Coaches: Bill Self, Kansas; John Beilein, Michigan.
Scouting the Jayhawks: Kansas leads the nation in field goal percentage defense. Opponents have made just 36 percent of their shots this season and in two NCAA Tournament victories, KU has held its opponents to 30 percent shooting. Freshman Ben McLemore, the team’s leading scorer, has been slumping. He’s been held under his scoring average in 10 of the last 11 games. In those 10 games, he’s shooting 42-of-106 from the field (39.6 percent) and 18-of-58 (31 percent) from 3-point range. Kansas is a rarity because it has four senior starters. In two NCAA victories, seniors Jeff Withey and Travis Releford scored a total of 66 points and added 33 rebounds. Withey has blocked 12 shots in two games.
Scouting the Wolverines: Michigan went 5-5 in its last 10 games before starting NCAA Tournament play. The Wolverines won their first 16 games and at one point in time shared the top spot in the polls with Kansas. Beilein’s offensive schemes are efficient and can produce lots of open shots. Michigan averages 75 points per game, is shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 38.2 percent on 3-pointers. Trey Burke, a 6-foot sophomore, is averaging 18.8 points and 6.7 assists per game. He’s a tough cover. Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Glenn Robinson III are sons of former NBA stars. Mitch McGary, a 6-10 freshman, has improved during the season and 21 points and 14 rebounds against VCU in the round of 32.