Georgetown will put its six-game winning streak on the line Saturday when it travels to the fabled Phog Allen Fieldhouse to take on the #18 Kansas Jayhawks. Can the Hoyas pull off their biggest win of the year on the road against a star-studded lineup? Let's get to it.
Get to Know Kansas.
The big picture. A lot has changed in the two years since Georgetown and Kansas met in the 2011 Maui Invitational. Then, coach Bill Self had a veteran roster that he would eventually guide to the national championship game. Two off-seasons have brought huge turnover: seven upperclassmen have left to graduation or the NBA Draft, with Ben McLemore, last year's one-year rental, heading to the lottery as well. Some of Self's leaner recruiting classes might have struggled to make up for that lost production, but the last two seasons have yielded a recruiting bounty. On the perceived strength of those youngsters, Kansas rode into this season with a top-six ranking in both polls and dreams of matching 2008's national championship run.
The first ten games have had a few hiccups that are primarily attributable to the Jayhawks' brutal non-conference slate. Kansas enters Saturday at 7-3, with the three losses all coming to ranked foes away from home: Villanova (No. 8 in the latest AP poll) on a neutral court in the Bahamas, at Colorado (No. 20) and at Florida (probably underrated at No. 16). Kansas beat its only other high-profile opponent, Duke, by 11 in Chicago, while dispatching a few other KenPom top-100 foes (New Mexico, Wake Forest, Iona).
What I learned from Wikipedia. I can't read the Jayhawks' insufferable Wikipedia entry without becoming really, really, jealous.
Back court. If Kansas has a weak spot, it's in the back court. The Jayhawks' guard rotation features just one upperclassman and a handful of first years, and their statistical profile includes below-average ball protection and long-distance shooting. Junior Naadir Tharpe (6.2 ppg, 5.1 apg, 35.7 3FG%) is a pass-first point guard who, aside from netting about one three-pointer per game, isn't a huge scoring threat. Freshman Wayne Selden (8.7 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 apg) is a slashing, athletic guard who projected as a first-round pick in last year's NBA Draft, but hasn't quite lived up to the hype yet. Off the pine, freshman Frank Mason (8.2 ppg, 2.5 apg, 38.7 FG%) is Tharpe's similarly undersized back-up who shoots more often then his fellow point guard but no more accurately. At the off guard, sophomore and one-time Hoya target Andrew White (4.1 ppg, 38.9 3FG%) is a long-distance specialist who missed the last game with a hip pointer; if White doesn't play, expect frosh Brannen Greene (3 ppg) to fill his minutes.
Front court. Up front is where the Jayhawks excel. The headliner here is freshman wing Andrew Wiggins (15.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg), the certain NBA lottery pick and possible #1 about whom you already know enough that we don't need to go into great detail. In the middle is another probable lottery selection, freshman Joel Embiid (9.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.4 blk pg, 1.1 stl pg), a defensive menace who is developing offensively. At the four is sophomore Perry Ellis (14.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) (no relation) who, before Wiggins's commitment to Kansas was projected to the Jayhawks' focal point. Ellis is a skilled four that can get his points in a variety of ways around the hoop and, occasionally, facing up from mid-range. In reserve, fifth-year transfer Tarik Black (2.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg) continues the shoulder-shrugging production he patented at Memphis.
Kansas on twitter.
Apparently someone specializes in writing terrible renditions of Christmas carols about college basketball teams.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>.<a href="https://twitter.com/KUHoops">@KUHoops</a> fans will enjoy this Christmas carol w/ mentions of <a href="https://twitter.com/jojo_embiid">@jojo_embiid</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/22wiggins">@22wiggins</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/CoachBillSelf">@CoachBillSelf</a> and more - <a href="http://t.co/095Bcyq1pI">http://t.co/095Bcyq1pI</a></p>— Sporting News NCAAB (@sn_ncaab) <a href="https://twitter.com/sn_ncaab/statuses/413691127598837760">December 19, 2013</a></blockquote>
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When Kansas has the ball.
- Match-up to watch: Wiggins v. TBD. This is a bit of a bummer. Until early June, this figured to be The Greg Whittington NBA Draft Announcement: a pro-caliber defender rocketing up the draft board by shutting down the presumptive No. 1 pick. I was already elated for the Shabazz-esque .gifs. Then Whittington tore his ACL, then got himself dismissed from the team entirely (though the latter didn't really affect his availability against Kansas). So who will guard the freshman phenom? Whether JT3 marks the rangy, 6'8" Wiggins with Jabril Trawick, Aaron Bowen, or some combination of perimeter zone defenders, Georgetown will be at a size disadvantage at this position. Don't be surprised to see plenty of zone as Georgetown tries to shut Kansas's formidable front line and force the Jayhawks to rely on ho-hum outside shooting. Regardless, preventing Wiggins from going off will need to be a priority Saturday.
- Number: three-pointers. Kansas has shot just 32 percent from deep this season, and has no regular three-point shooter who makes more than 40 percent from deep. The Jayhawks rank in the bottom quarter of the nation in both percentage of field goals from three and percentage of points from three. This, combined with Kansas's strong front line, would seem to beg for a Hoya zone.
- Feeling delusional because...The two entries above sketch out how Georgetown could muck things up for Kansas offensively. The Hoyas have allowed a ton of three-point attempts so far this season, as opponents have taken fully 38 percent of their field goal attempts from three. That's a big problem against hot-shooting, high-volume gunners like Elon, which put up 76 on the Hoyas on Tuesday. It might be an invitation to disaster for opponents that hoist up brick after brick from three.
- Feeling cynical because...I don't know that Kansas will get tempted into one lazy perimeter jumper after another. The Jayhawks get into the teeth of a defense pretty well, passing the ball freely (assisting on 58 percent of baskets), attacking the rim (nearly 28 FTA per game), and generally finding good looks inside (57 percent 2FG%, 6th highest in the country). The number of fouls they draw particularly concerns me, given the Hoyas' propensity for hacking. If Georgetown gets in early foul trouble and Wiggins or another Jayhawk heats up early from deep, this could get ugly quickly.
When Georgetown has the ball.
- Match-up to watch: Josh Smith v. Joel Embiid. I don't know that this will be the pivotal match-up on Saturday, but it's certainly the most intriguing. At 7'0", 250 lb., the freshman Embiid is strong and agile and already has established himself as an elite defender, ranking in the top 20 nationally in block rate. Smith is a tank, outweighing the already large Embiid by a full 100 pounds. Can Smith negate Embiid's wing span by getting into the big man's chest? Will Embiid's superior length take away Smith's post bullying?
- Number to watch: fouls, fouls, fouls. Or will Smith draw a couple of early whistles on Embiid, sending the freshman to the pine? Smith has drawn 8 fouls per 40 minutes, a top-20 mark nationally, while Embiid has been whistled for 7 fouls per 40 minutes, a hacktastic figure (one, it should be noted, exceeded by Smith). Both players' trends apply more broadly to their teams. Georgetown has earned over 26 free throws per contest, getting to the line at a top-60 mark nationally. For its part, Kansas has been fouling at nearly as high a rate as Georgetown. There's no certainty that fouls will swing in Georgetown's favor--particularly with the raucous Rock Chalk loyalists, the whistles could trend against the Hoyas--but the path to an upset could well involve some early Jayhawk foul trouble.
- Feeling delusional because... Guard play. Markel Starks is a better shooter than the first nine games reflect, and he found his groove after the half against Elon, nailing four triples en route to a game-high 21 points. D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has only recently regained consciousness after a scorching shooting start to the season in which he's averaged nearly 17 points per game. Opposite them is a talented but unproven Kansas back-court that could find itself over-matched on Saturday.
- Feeling cynical because... Kansas's interior size is going to make it awfully difficult to score inside on Saturday. Lost amid all the deserved fretting over Georgetown's lousy outside shooting has been the fact that the Hoyas have been really accurate inside the arc, where they've hit 56.5 percent of their shots, the 10th-best mark nationally. However, that largely has been at the expense of some porous interior defenses: no Hoya opponent to date has ranked higher than 135th nationally in defending two-point field goals. For its part, Kansas ranks 55th in that category, boast a top-25 block percentage, and sport a front line with three starters standing 6'8" or taller. Georgetown will face a higher-caliber defense on Saturday, and may struggle as a result.
Conclusion. Ugh. I felt so much more hopeless before beginning to write this preview. Kansas is a very good team, better than its record against a tough slate reflects. Georgetown is coming off a pair of single-digit home wins over inferior opponents. The Hoyas have been inconsistent on both sides of the ball this year, alternating offensive stagnation with defensive indifference. But they keep slugging out wins, arriving at a true test in respectable if not entirely convincing form. That test comes against an opponent that, while certainly talented, has some specific holes that Georgetown may be able to exploit. Whether the Hoyas will gain an early advantage, and ride out of Lawrence with an upset, remains to be seen. On a big stage in a hostile arena, expect Georgetown to turn in a performance that's better than in recent games, but not quite enough to pull off the win. Kansas 70, Georgetown 66.