March Madness is often about matchups. In the team vs. team category, sometimes the bracket tumblers will roll out a game that one team is destined to lose because it just doesn't "match up" well with its opponent.
Individually, there are matchups of a similar vein. As Missouri proved during the regular season, its lack of size that was a problem on the defensive end became a huge edge on the offensive end.
Kansas, in its two games with Missouri, received scant production from 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who became a key contributor to the Jayhawks' eighth Big 12 regular-season title. Against Purdue's four-guard lineup in the NCAA Tournament last Sunday, Withey was rendered ineffective and reserve guard Conner Teahan wound up playing 30 minutes as KU eked out a victory.
Now, No. 11 seed North Carolina State awaits in the Midwest Regional semifinal. The Wolfpack have a more conventional lineup than teams like Missouri and Purdue.
"It's more traditional than what we have kind of been used to because they will play two bigs," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But their bigs are really, really quick. Really quick. And they can catch the ball at 17 and put it down and drive it or they can make shots. And so it is still a kind of a unique challenge. They're not traditional bigs, but at least they're bigs."
The Wolfpack's C.J. Leslie is a 6-8 sophomore forward who averages 14.6 points a game while Richard Howell is a 6-8 junior who averages 11 per game and was fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding.
So the challenge presented by North Carolina State (24-12) is that Withey and Thomas Robinson will be matched with players that are similar in size but have skills that allow them to operate away from the basket. Situations like that can lead to defensive break downs and foul trouble.
North Carolina State is similar to second-seeded Kansas (29-6) in that both teams have seven-man rotations and both have balanced scoring attacks. The Wolfpack, in addition to having all five starters 6-5 or taller, have all five in double figures.
"North Carolina State is balanced and that's the hardest thing to guard; you have to guard everybody," Self said. "Everybody's scoring double figures, everybody is capable of getting 20 in a game, and they have a couple guys that can really take over a game.
"N.C. State is so athletic, so talented. They are deserving to be here and playing really well right now."
Mark Gottfried, in his first year as North Carolina State's coach, says that the more Kansas film he watches, the more he's impressed with how the Jayhawks know how to win.
"What I like when I watch their team is they just keep finding ways to win," Gottfried said. "You watch some games and there's that eight minute mark in the second half and it starts to look like it's teetering one way or another and here they come, bang, bang, bang. I think that's a trademark of Bill's teams. They have always done that. They find ways to win."
One of the matchups Kansas hopes to win involves Robinson, the Big 12 player of the year. Purdue's swarming defense took him out of the game, limiting him to just two field goals in his 12 attempts. Tyshawn Taylor, KU's All-Big 12 guard, had just 10 points against the Boilermakers.
"It shows how far we've come," Taylor said. "Two months ago, if me and Thomas have those kind of games there's probably no way we win. We showed we can be good when our best players aren't playing their best."
North Carolina State assistant coach Bobby Lutz was the top assistant for Iowa State and coach Fred Hoiberg last season. Lutz, known has a master strategist, coached the scout team of transfers Royce White, Chris Allen and others. Regarding the Wolfpack's Sweet 16 game with Kansas, Lutz said: "I don't think they're that difficult to scout. They're very difficult to beat."
Kansas and North Carolina State have one previous meeting in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks, with current assistant coach Danny Manning scoring 22 points, defeated the Wolfpack in the 1986 Midwest Regional Final in Kansas City's Kemper Arena.
North Carolina State first-year coach Mark Gottfried is the nephew of former KU football coach Mike Gottfried. Mark Gottfried was an assistant coach at UCLA, was Murray State's head coach for three seasons and coached 11 years at Alabama. He spent the last two seasons as an analyst with ESPN.
No. 2 Kansas (29-6) vs. No. 11 North Carolina State (24-12)
9:17 p.m. Friday, St. Louis, Mo., TBS
Why they're here: Kansas was an at-large selection from the Big 12. The Jayhawks defeated No. 15 Detroit and No. 10 Purdue in the first two NCAA games. North Carolina State was an at-large selection from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Wolfpack defeated No. 6 San Diego State and No. 3 Georgetown in the first two NCAA games.
Coaches: Bill Self, Kansas; Mark Gottfried, North Carolina State.
Scouting the Jayhawks: Kansas has not played well in its last three games but having some time off should help a team that has logged a lot of minutes with its top seven players. The Jayhawks need to get star performances from Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor if they're to reach the Final Four. Junior guard Elijah Johnson made 6 of 13 3-pointers in the first two NCAA games; if he continues to play like he has, Kansas becomes a difficult team to beat. If Travis Releford is guarding Scott Wood, N.C. State's top 3-point threat, how that battle unfolds could help decide the outcome.
Scouting the Wolfpack: North Carolina State likes to play at a fast pace and relies on its front court to do most of the scoring. C.J. Leslie, a 6-8 sophomore, is the team's leading scorer and over the last 10 games he has averaged 18.2 points and 9.7 rebounds. Richard Howell, a 6-8 junior, averages 11 points and 9 rebounds per game. The key to the Wolfpack's offense is 6-6 junior Scott Wood, the team's top 3-point shooter. If his shot isn't falling, then North Carolina State's offense relies strictly on what it can score from 15 feet on in.