The big dance has finally arrived, and the Kansas Jayhawks will get their 30th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance underway on Thursday afternoon against the Northeastern Huskies. KU is a four seed this year, its lowest seeding since the 2006 season (which resulted in a first-round loss to Bradley. Northeastern is making its first appearance in the tournament since 2015.
Northeastern will be a difficult matchup for Kansas, mostly because of the Huskies’ three-point shooting proficiency. Coach Bill Coen’s team is 14th in the nation in three-point percentage. While KU has struggled with the three this year, both shooting it and defending it, the Jayhawks still hold a distinct athletic advantage. That’s no more apparent than in the post, where junior forward Dedric Lawson and freshman forward David McCormack have frustrated opponents since the latter was inserted into the starting lineup last month.
Even for a 4 versus 13 contest, the clashing styles in Thursday’s game could lead to a competitive battle.
KU has won eight of its last 11 games, though its most recent game was a 14-point loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament title game. Despite the lopsided loss, Kansas coach Bill Self was somewhat upbeat after the game, saying he was more confident going into March following the Iowa State game than he was before.
The Jayhawks are running a four-freshman lineup currently, something Self said he doesn’t expect will change when he spoke to the media on Wednesday. While the group is young in terms of age, they’ve been forced to mature out of necessity. That’s not necessarily an issue, though, especially not for the backcourt duo of Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, who have started every game for KU this season.
“I think we’ve matured a lot so fast,” Grimes said. “… We can definitely take on that leadership role if we need to tell somebody where they need to be. I believe we can definitely fill that role for Coach.”
Self also mentioned that the youth factor isn’t a death sentence for this Kansas season, saying that while experience can play a role in tournament success it’s not the only thing to consider.
The Huskies have been playing cutthroat basketball for several games at this point, needing to win their conference tournament to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. That’s exactly what they did, winning their last seven games including three straight to earn the Colonial Athletic Association’s bid.
As previously stated, Northeastern is an elite team when it comes to shooting the three. Led by senior Vasa Pusica, the Huskies are shooting 38.8 percent from deep this season. Pusica in particular has been great from long range, making 39.7 percent of his threes while scoring 17.8 points per game.
“He is a fabulous player,” Self said. “He plays with pace, he’s a point guard with size, he’s got great vision and his stroke is pure. He’s a tough match-up … After watching him, he has to be one of the better unknown talents in America, he is a really good guard.”
This game’s result could easily come down to how Kansas handles the three pointer. If the Jayhawks do a decent job of running the Huskies off the three-point line, then make a handful of their own on the other end, KU should run away with this game. Northeastern has played some quality opponents from major conferences this year, but in terms of talent and size it could be in for a rude awakening when it faces KU for the first time in program history.
When it comes to shooting, it needs to be a group effort for the Jayhawks. Without senior guard Lagerald Vick, Kansas is shooting just 32.3 percent from three as a team this year, led by a 37 percent clip from both Lawson and Dotson. Those two always need to play well for KU to win. However, a third option is necessary if the Jayhawks want to win on Thursday and make a run in the tournament. The top candidates for that are Grimes and fellow freshman guard Ochai Agbaji.
Grimes has been inconsistent at best for most of the year, exemplified by going 5-of-8 from three against West Virginia last Friday then 0-of-6 one day later against Iowa State. Agbaji had several impressive scoring performances earlier this year, but had quieted down significantly since. If one of those two can join Lawson and Dotson as key offensive contributors, combined with even decent three-point defense, Kansas should be able to win handily.
Northeastern needs to let it fly. That’s not a huge ask from a team that shoots 25 threes per game, but it’s the likely the only way the Huskies can keep up with the Jayhawks for 40 minutes. With a size and athletic disadvantage, Northeastern will need to rely on its best attack to stay competitive.
While that sounds dire, Pusica exuded confidence when talking about the matchup on Wednesday, saying he’s not worried about their opponents just because of KU’s pedigree.
“One of the greatest coaches in college basketball and every year to have talented guys, so we know we are facing a talented team,” Pusica said. “We are also talented as well. We are experienced. I feel confident coming to tomorrow’s game.”
A secondary strategy could be forcing McCormack into foul trouble should Kansas get a noticeable advantage inside early. If McCormack has to sit, Lawson likely slides into the five spot for a larger portion of the game. That’s not necessarily the worst case scenario for KU. However, it would mean that sophomore guard Marcus Garrett is in the game even longer than he normally would be. He’s the Jayhawks’ best on-ball defender, but he’s shooting a mere 24.5 percent from long range this season, meaning Northeastern would gain something of an advantage should the game turn into a shootout under this scenario.
It’s important, though, to take a step back and analyze all that could have to happen for Northeastern to pull off the upset. It’s undoubtedly possible, but there’s a reason Kansas is a four seed and Northeastern is a 13.