A trip to the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. and the Sweet 16 is on the line tonight when the Kansas Jayhawks take on the Auburn Tigers in the second round of the NCAA tournament. If Kansas wins it will be the fourth-straight Sweet 16 trip for the Jayhawks, while Auburn is looking for its fourth-ever trip to the regional semifinal.
The two teams head into Saturday night after wildly different first-round wins. KU easily won its opener, while Auburn had to go down to the final possession to advance on Thursday. The Tigers do pose a significant challenge to the Jayhawks in terms of size and skill set. Auburn is long, athletic and bigger than KU’s opening-round opponent, Northeastern, while also shooting threes at a higher clip than all but one team in the country (Savannah State).
Once again, three-point shooting will likely be a deciding factor in a do-or-die game for KU.
The fear for KU in the first round of this year’s tournament was Northeastern’s shooting ability. The Huskies did not live up to the scary premonitions of Kansas fans, being held to merely 21.4 percent from downtown in what was one of the best defensive performances of the year by the Jayhawks. It’s important to keep in mind that disparity in athletic stature was massive, with KU holding the obvious advantage over a team from the Colonial Athletic Association.
That clear advantage helped Kansas do whatever it wanted on the offensive end as well. Junior forward Dedric Lawson dropped in 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, making light work of the Huskies’ porous defense. Freshman guard Devon Dotson experienced something similar, specifically in terms of skills Northeastern couldn’t match; his game-changing speed was unmatched by anyone else on the floor.
Kansas shot 55.6 percent from the floor in the win. KU has shot better than 50 percent in 13 games this year, winning all of them.
In an opening day that saw a lot of chalk, Auburn had to play to the final horn in able to eliminate 12-seed New Mexico State. The Tigers led by eight points with about two minutes to go, then had to survive multiple turnovers, fouling a three-point shooter in a two-point game and having to defend a buzzer-beater.
Through all of that, they still held on to win.
Streaky play was the hallmark of Auburn’s win over NMSU. There were 10 and 13-point runs for coach Bruce Pearl’s team, along with a 5:33 stretch without a field goal to end the first half and the debacle at the end of the game. For the majority of the game, though, they were able to keep the Aggies at bay thanks to electric three-point shooting. Auburn made 12-of-31 shots from three in the victory, good for 38.7 percent and almost exactly its average number of attempts per game for the season.
It all starts with defense for the Jayhawks. Keeping Auburn out of its offense rhythm is the most likely way KU will pull off the win. On Friday coach Bill Self said that keeping Northeastern off-balance was something his team did well, and it showed in the final numbers. Additionally, Auburn junior forward Anfernee McLemore said Auburn found most of its offensive success on Thursday when running set plays in its offense. When the droughts came, McLemore said it was most because the Tigers were hurrying shots in transition.
Kansas needs to be disruptive to win this one. Auburn shoots the ball a ton and will do that regardless of how well KU defends on the perimeter. Forcing marginal shots or outright bad looks, however, will throw off Auburn’s offensive attack. They key for the Jayhawks will be defending throughout the entire shot clock, something they struggled with in the Big 12 Tournament title game.
As for the offense, KU needs to get a third scoring contributor outside of the de facto “big two.” Lawson, whether it’s inside, outside or at the free throw line, will make up a large portion of KU’s scoring. Dotson has been playing his best offensive basketball lately, averaging 16 points per game over the last five. BUt the Jayhawks need someone, likely someone who can shoot, to step up and offer and a third threat. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji need to be able to rise to the occasion when called on.
The Tigers will live and die by the three on Saturday. This comes back to their ability to stay in their offensive sets; if they can do that and can find open looks, the Jayhawks will be in dire straits from the jump. However, if they struggle from deep their offense will deteriorate like it did for stretches against NMSU. Auburn takes 30 threes per game, so expect a lot of shots from beyond the arc.
Defensively, Auburn has to double team Lawson constantly. Northeastern didn’t have the athletes to hang with Lawson in the paint, but Auburn does. Its length and athleticism can frustrate KU’s best big, subsequently forcing the four freshmen (or sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who is far from a consistent offensive weapon) to make more shots.
Auburn is deservedly the favorite in this game, even after it had an exhausting and emotional win two days ago and Kansas struggled minimally. But Auburn is arguably the worst matchup for KU at this point in time. That’s not to say the Jayhawks can’t win, because they absolutely can, and they can for a number of factors. But given the Tigers’ shooting ability and athleticism, two things that have complicated this season for KU, several breaks will need to go the Jayhawks’ way for them to advance to the Sweet 16.