This Saturday will see the Kansas Jayhawks (6-1) take the court for the first time since winning the Maui Invitational when they host the Colorado Buffaloes (7-0) in a battle of top-20 teams. That marks two ranked games for KU within the first eight of the season (it lost to Duke in the season opener).
The last time the Jayhawks and Buffaloes faced off was six years ago to the day, when unranked Colorado knocked off sixth-ranked Kansas 75-72 thanks to a buzzer beater in Boulder. That win was one of just a few for CU in series history, though; these two programs have played one another 163 times, with the Jayhawks winning 123 of those meetings.
Colorado has its best team in years this season, however, and it will pose a legitimate threat to Kansas inside Allen Fieldhouse this weekend.
The Jayhawks are playing as well as any team in the country right now and their last time out they played one of the best games of the season across college basketball, beating Dayton in overtime in the Maui Invitational final. Senior center Udoka Azubuike and sophomore guard played phenomenally throughout the tournament, with the best game of each’s career coming against Dayton. Each possesses something that is rarely, if ever, matched, with Azubuike’s size and Dotson’s speed posing matchups nightmares for all opponents. Add in junior guard Marcus Garrett, who is playing with a new confidence on offense to go along with his stifling defense, and there are numerous genuine scoring threats across the KU roster.
As good as the offense has been for the Jayhawks, their defense has been phenomenal as of late as well. KenPom currently has Kansas eighth in the nation in defense, the best mark in the Big 12. Garrett is the most noticeable and most relied upon defender, but there are noticeable improvements for several players, who are able to cover for less effective players on that end (such as senior guard Isaiah Moss). To reiterate, there are not many teams playing as well as Kansas is right now, let alone playing better.
While KU’s defense has been great, Colorado’s isn’t far behind. The Buffs are the 11th-ranked defense team per KenPom currently, the highest in the Pac-12. They’re giving up just 56.3 points per game, which is also 11th in the country. Even against bad competition (CU is ranked 213th in nonconference strength of schedule by KenPom) that’s an impressive number. Colorado has only allowed over 70 points once this season, giving up 71 to Arizona State in its season opener. The defense will be put to the test against Kansas, though, which is averaging 83 points per game.
Junior point guard McKinley Wright IV doesn’t have the flashiest stats on the team, but he is one of the most dynamic point guards in the country and one of the few who can keep up speed-wise with Dotson. He’s an easy player to root for, with a dynamic game and an emotional off-court story, and slowing him down is going to be a focal point for the Jayhawks. The Buffalo who does have flashy stats is junior guard/forward Tyler Bey, who is averaging a double-double this year with 14 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. He leads CU in scoring, shooting percentage, rebounding and steals this year.
What’s the defensive plan on Bey? He’s not a natural floor-stretcher, attempting just 11 threes this season, and is going to play physically inside. There’s a reason he’s a combo player who averages nearly 12 boards per game and is shooting nearly 47% on two-point shots. He provides an interesting matchup, but KU can counter with several different options. Garrett is one option, given his ability to guard any position 1-4 effectively. He has no trouble facing up with bigger bodies. Sophomore forward David McCormack will likely start alongside Azubuike, so he’ll get a chance to guard Bey early as well before the Jayhawks switch to a guard-heavy lineup. We may also see junior forward Silvio de Sousa get a look, because his athleticism could be an asset in this particular situation. He’s struggled to see the floor early this year, but if other options aren’t panning out he is a viable choice.
Can they hold up against a good team? As mentioned above, it’s impressive to limit teams like Colorado has this season regardless of how good those opponents are. However, the best win for the Buffs this season was against Arizona State, their first game of the year against the team that is now ranked 67th in KenPom. Of their seven opponents, four are ranked 176 or higher and two are in the 200s. That’s not a strong group. The talent is there for coach Tad Boyle’s group, even beyond Wright and Bey. Whether or not they can hang with the Jayhawks will say a lot about where the program is right now.
Azubuike. The 7-foot, 270-pound big man is going to be the most physically imposing player on the court once again this weekend and the offense is going to run through him, barring foul trouble. The biggest player in Colorado’s regular rotation is senior forward Lucas Siewert, who’s 6-foot-10 but just 232 pounds. Two inches and 38 pounds is going to make a world of difference. The Jayhawks have been at their best this season with four guards playing around Azubuike with the offense running through the center. In several games this year KU has gone through stretches where the only offensive plan is feeding Azubuike and letting him dominate under the basket. There’s no reason to not follow that same plan against CU.
Wright. This pick comes down to one simple matchup, him versus Dotson. The latter has been one of the best players in the whole country, and is currently 10th in KenPom’s player of the year rankings. Wright will be tasked with slowing down one of the fastest players in the game and limiting his ability to create. Not only that, but he needs to find a way to contribute offensively when guarded by Dotson. Wright is a skilled player and has the right mindset to go one-on-one in this matchup, and he’ll need to be at his very best on Saturday to keep control over the game.
Saturday night will feature a well-rested Jayhawks group against a good but potentially overrated Buffaloes squad. It should be a tough game, but KU will show it’s the better team.