After a grueling stent away from home, the Jayhawks finally return to friendly territory. It is not quite the warm confines of Allen Fieldhouse, but it is the best alternative as they get set to take on New Mexico in Kansas City at the Sprint Center. Here are a few things to watch for:
1. The play of Tharpe. Self was recently quoted as saying that his junior point guard must step up for this team to have success. I have to agree with him. While I made the argument that Mason deserved to start, which of course he did, I did not hold the opinion that KU would be at its best with Mason starting. Or at least, they wouldn’t reach their full potential with Tharpe coming of the bench. The moist frustrating thing to watch recently has been the poor offensive efficiency and the Jayhawk’s inability to attack a zone. Tharpe is the one guy on this team the young guys should be able to fall back on. He should be able to organize his troops and keep the offense humming along when he is in there. I think Mason will be the better PG when it is all said and done, but right now he still doesn’t know how to lead a team. That will come with time. For now, the Jayhawks need someone to keep them on the same page when the going gets tough. Tharpe has to be that guy. There is just no other way around it. I don’t think he will bounce Mason back to the bench to start the game today unless he had a ridiculously good week of practice. But he needs embrace his role and start contributing. So far KU is much worse when he is on the floor, and that has to change if the Jayhawks want to go anywhere this season.
2. New Mexico’s big three. For a one loss team, New Mexico is really inefficient with their shots. Believe it or not, they are only slightly better at 3-point FG% than KU, and they are far worse when you look at their effective FG%. They take a ton of shots, though, and so their points per game ranks in the top 50 despite their less-than-stellar percentages. They also have three guys who average nearly 20 points per game. That would be Williams, Kirk and Bairstow. Those three are not the problem. They all average over 50% from the field. It is the rest of the team that can’t find the bottom of the net. KU will have to shut one or two of those guys down if they are to have a chance. This is a great opportunity to see who can finally step up for KU and become a lock down defender. Only one of those three, Williams, is a guard. My money is on Wiggins to take on the challenge. Then there is their 7-footer Alex Kirk. Embiid, if he starts again, should be saddled with that challenge. This will be the toughest matchup of the year for Embiid. His tendency to foul has been well documented here. Now he is going up against someone the same height, but a Junior who has way more experience. Embiid does have a tiny bit of size on Kirk, but I don’t think that will make much of a difference. Then you have the matchup with Perry and Bairstow. This is the major mismatch in my opinion. Bairstow has an inch and 25 pounds on Ellis. Ellis is known for his weak interior defense. He is a finesse guy on offense, and it carries over to the defensive in most of the time. This would be a great chance for him to show he can man up down low and stop somebody. But, if I had to pick one of their big three to have a nice night vs KU, it would be Bairstow if Perry guards him.
3. Winning attitude. KU has had their brutal road trip. They return to Kansas bruised and humbled. They have had their prodigal team meeting. Now is the time for them to flip the switch and start competing. New Mexico is a good team. Ticket prices for the game have been dropping so I don’t expect the Sprint Center to be packed to capacity with crazed KU fans. The time for the team to learn from loosing has passed. It is time to start winning again. Will we see the Jayhawks come out and jump on the Lobos early in this one? Have they found the winning attitude?