by Conner Mitchell (@kudemo64)
No. 5 Kansas (19-3, 7-2 Big 12) will limp in to the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma Saturday searching for an identity as a team. Facing an upstart Oklahoma team (14-7, 5-4 Big 12) will be no easy task for the Bill Self-coached Jayhawks.
Kansas, although still tied for first place in the Big 12 standings, has spiraled out of control lately. A lack of offensive firepower and lapses in defense have sent the fifth ranked team in the country to two straight losses that previous Kansas teams most likely would not lose to.
Oklahoma has been up and down this season, emerging from the non-conference season with no bad losses but no key wins, either. The Sooners currently sit a game above .500 in conference play, dropping their last two games to No. 13 Kansas State and Iowa State.
Ben McLemore has been consistent lately, leading Kansas in scoring in two of their last three games. Senior Jeff Withey has also been solid, averaging 12.7 points per game and eight rebounds per game over the last four games.
Players to watch for
# 23 Ben McLemore: What other praises can be given to the redshirt freshman phenemenon? Scoring in double digits in all but two games this season, McLemore has been the only consistent offensive contributor for the Jayhawks this season, averaging 16.3 points per game. One of the leading candidates for the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in June, Kansas fans should enjoy McLemore while they can.
#5 Jeff Withey: The seven-foot senior transfer from Arizona has been a human wrecking ball for the Kansas defense this season, currently second in the NCAA with 4.2 blocks per game. Withey is one of the best in the country at clogging up the lane and is one of the best defensive players in Kansas history. He is looking to become the all-time leader in blocked shots at Kansas on Saturday, currently sitting behind Greg Ostertag.
#1 Naadir Tharpe: Much maligned point guard Naadir Tharpe may be one of the keys to a Jayhawk victory Saturday. Coming off an 11 point game against TCU, Tharpe’s potential has been steadily improving lately. Tharpe is a decent ball handler, with a 2.5/1 assist to turnover ratio, which will give the turnover-prone Jayhawks more quality possessions but he needs to work on his decision making when shooting the ball.
#2 Stephen Pledger: Oklahoma’s best player, Pledger will be a tricky assignment for his Jayhawk defender. Pledger dropped 20 points at Baylor in a 74-71 victory, and scored 10 points in his first meeting with Kansas, a 54-67 loss. A quality, but streaky shooter, Kansas will have to stick close to Pledger during Saturday’s contest.
# 24 Romero Osby: A fifth year transfer from Mississippi State, Osby is an offensive and rebounding weapon for the Sooners. Averaging 13.8 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game, Kansas will again draw a tough assignment in Osby. While Osby isn’t much of a defensive threat, his offensive firepower will be a cause for concern with Bill Self and the Kansas coaching staff.
# 3 Buddy Hield: Hield is having a season to remember in his Freshman campaign at Oklahoma. Averaging 8.9 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, and 2.1 assists per game, Hield has provided the Sooners with 30 quality minutes in many games.
How I See It
Kansas has been in one of their worst offensive slumps in recent memory since their narrow 69-62 win against Temple back in January. TCU held the Jayhawks to two points for the first 13 minutes of the game Wednesday, and if Kansas starts Saturday’s game similarly, they will be run out of the gym. Lon Kruger is an excellent basketball coach, who understands and executes the X’s and O’s part of the game as well as anyone in the business.
The start will be the key to this game. Kansas needs to get the ball down low early and often to regain confidence and put points on the board. Shot selection needs to be better for the Jayhawks, with fewer three’s and more quality possessions.
Kansas is the better team in this game, and Bill Self is the better coach, but with the current mental state of the Jayhawks, it is hard to determine how the team will come out Saturday.
Last Time They Met
On January 26th, the Kansas Jayhawks defeated the Sooners, 67-54. Jeff Withey had 13 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
While Oklahoma doesn’t normally provide much of an atmosphere, TCU’s rare, energetic crowd may inspire Sooner fans to come and try and guide their team to a victory. This will be a close game all the way, with KU struggling to hold on to a five to six point lead most of the way. As long as Kansas does not get too discouraged with themselves and keeps shooting when not everything is going in, they have a chance to right the sinking ship and return to Lawrence with a 8-2 Big 12 record and get ready for an enormous Big Monday game against #13 Kansas State. Kansas fans should still be optimistic in Bill Self’s ability to mentally prepare his teams for games, and he will do just enough to escape Norman with a 68-65 victory.