Game of the Week: #10 Texas A&M at #6 Kansas (Saturday, February 3rd, 9:00 PM, ESPN)
It’s finally here. February. The stretch run in college basketball. Conference title races, rivalries, bubble teams, RPI, quality wins—the best two-month stretch of the year starts now. From here until Selection Sunday, nearly every game matters—for seeding, conference standings, and for inclusion to the Big Dance. Since it’s only the midpoint for conference play, most leagues are still up for grabs. However, it seems like there are two teams fighting for the title in some of the major conferences. UCLA and Oregon in the Pac-10, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the Big Ten, and Texas A&M and Kansas in the Big 12. When either of these duos match-up, it’s guaranteed to be the “Game of the Week.” This week is no different, as the Big Twelve favorites will go head-to-head in the only game the two will play this season.
Texas A&M has gone under the radar for most of the season when people discuss potential Final Four teams and national title contenders. However, they have improved their offense greatly since last season, and still own arguably the best defense in the country. That balance at both ends of the floor could carry them a long way. Ranked #26 in the RPI, the 17-3 (5-1 in the Big 12) Aggies have had a very impressive campaign thus far. They started the season with seven straight wins, most notably a 69-33 thrashing of Saint Louis. However, A&M lost their next two on the road at LSU and UCLA. They bounced back to win their next nine games, including victories at Auburn by 31, and at home over Oklahoma State, Winthrop, and Kansas State. They lost their first conference game in the final minute to Texas Tech last week. All three losses have come on the road, which doesn’t bode well for Saturday. The Aggies average almost 76 points per game, and have outscored their opponents by more than 21 points per game—third-best in the country. They allow fewer than 55 per contest, tops in the Big 12 and second in the nation. According to Ken Pomeroy, Texas A&M has the 8th-most efficient offense and the 4th-most efficient defense in the country.
Kansas was ranked in the top three in nearly every preseason poll, but has not lived up to that hype just yet. They have shown the ability to beat any team in the country—and lose to any team in the country. The Jayhawks are one of the two most talented teams in the country (UNC is the other), and just need to put it all together to go deep in March. Ranked #13 in the RPI, the 19-3 (6-1 in the Big 12) Jayhawks are a candidate to win the title. They opened the season with a win, but turned around and lost to Oral Roberts—at home. KU won the next five, including a neutral-site victory over Florida in overtime. A week later, though, they Jayhawks went to DePaul and lost to the 11-10 Blue Demons. Since then, Kansas has won 13 of their last 14 games, with the lone loss coming at Texas Tech a couple of weeks ago. The winning streak included wins over USC, Boston College, and Oklahoma State. The Jayhawks have won their last three games by an average of 23 points per contest. They average almost 78 points per game, but allow only 60 a contest, second in the Big 12. Ken Pomeroy has the Jayhawks as the 48th-most efficient offensive team in the country, but the 3rd-most efficient defensive team.
Texas A&M Team Breakdown
The knock on Texas A&M last year was that they didn’t have enough consistent offense to really contend with the big boys on a nightly basis. However, they have ridden the momentum of last season’s strong finish to a top ten ranking all season. Their offense is much improved from a year ago. The Aggies are very balanced in the perimeter and the post, and they have a variety of weapons that can beat you. Defensively, they are outstanding. They really get up on the ball and disrupt the opponent’s offense. No team has scored more than 70 points in a game this year, and they have held 12 opponents to 60 points or below. If their offense stays consistent and doesn’t disappear for stretches, this team will be tough.
The Aggies’ frontcourt is very solid at both ends of the floor. It is led by All-Big 12 big man Joseph Jones. He is a dominant inside performer and is efficient shooting the ball. He is a load for opponents to defend in the paint with his size and variety of post moves. He is an excellent rebounder and is capable of taking over any game with his scoring ability down low. Jones is second on the team in scoring and leads A&M in rebounding. He is also one of the best free-throw shooters in the conference, knocking down over 82% of his foul shots. Jones has scored in single-digits only four times this season, but foul trouble has been a problem at times. Next to him down low is Antanas Kavaliauskas. He is one of the most improved players in the conference and has been a consistent scorer for the Aggies with his efficient scoring and ability to hit the mid-range shot. However, he has been somewhat inconsistent, capable of disappearing for games and coming out in others. He is coming off of 20-point, 6-rebound performance against Oklahoma—which came after a four-point showing against Texas Tech. Former starter Marlon Pompey is a key contributor off the bench. He is a solid rebounder and scorer who plays good defense and hits free throws. Freshman Bryan Davis sees minutes as well.
The perimeter group for Texas A&M is one of the best in the country. Acie Law is widely regarded as one of the top point guards in the nation. He is extremely quick with the ball and loves to lead the fast break. He can shoot the three with efficiency, and is capable of really getting hot from behind the arc. Law is averaging 20 points per game in Big 12 play, and has really come up big down the stretch in games. He is a very good passer who finds open teammates very well. He had 14 assists in a game earlier this season, but had three straight games of one assist before his 7-assist performance against Oklahoma. He is also a solid defender. Josh Carter is the best three-point shooter on the team, and one of the best in all of college basketball. He has the ability to get hot at any time, and having a big game. However, he is sometimes inconsistent on the offensive end. He had a six-game stretch earlier this season in which he averaged 17 points per game. On the other hand, he has scored in single-digits in three of the past five games. He is also a solid rebounder and passer. Dominique Kirk also starts on the perimeter. He is an outstanding defender who usually guards the opponent’s best scorer. He can really take players out of their normal offensive game. He held Jarrius Jackson to 3 of 10 shooting, JamesOn Curry to only 8 shots, Richard Roby to 4 of 15 shooting—and that’s all in Big 12 play. Kirk is also a solid three-point shooter who distributes well, and can rebound. Donald Sloan contributes off the bench in the backcourt, providing scoring and athleticism.
Kansas Team Breakdown
Heading into the season, most considered Kansas to be head-and-shoulders above most of the competition in the Big 12. However, due to their inconsistency and uninspiring play at times, the Jayhawks are not a sure thing. With that said, they are a legitimate national championship threat. They are loaded at every position, and might have the most talent in the country. Offensively, they lack a go-to-guy but have terrific balance and have plenty of players that can hurt you on a given night. On the other side of the ball, the Jayhawks are also very solid. They can guard you both on the perimeter and down low, and can play at multiple speeds due to their talent and depth.
Up front, KU has a quartet of players that fill a variety of needs and contribute in different ways. It starts with the extremely versatile Julian Wright. The 6-8 sophomore can do nearly everything on the floor due to his athleticism and all-around ability. Wright can play multiple positions. He can handle the ball well and is also a terrific passer. Moreover, he has a solid mid-range game and also finishes very well around the basket. Wright is also a very good defender, getting into passing lanes and also blocking shots around the goal. He has been inconsistent this season, though. He started 2007 with four straight games of below eight points, but is averaging almost 13 points per game in his last four contests. Freshman Darrell Arthur doesn’t start, but makes an impact every night. Arthur has been, at times, the best player on the Jayhawks. He can play any position on the frontline, and has made a big-time impact for Kansas. Arthur is very athletic and loves to run the floor for easy baskets in transition. He averages just over 20 minutes per game, but leads the team in blocked shots. Arthur has been up and down for most of the season, but when he is playing well, look out. In a win over Florida earlier this season, Arthur was the best player on the floor at times, putting up 19 points and 9 rebounds—in only 16 minutes. Sasha Kaun starts down low, providing a very good rebounding and defensive presence in the paint. He is also a serviceable scorer who gets garbage points off of rebounds and loose balls in the paint. His impact might not show up in the box score, but he sets the tone down low from the outset with his physicality. Darnell Jackson is a banger off the bench. He makes the most of his time on the court, averaging 5.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, in less 15 minutes a contest. He has been scoreless in three of the past four games, but his rebounding and defense has been solid.
Kansas, like Texas A&M, has one of the best perimeter groups in the country. It starts with sophomore Brandon Rush, who is starting to develop into the go-to-guy the Jayhawks have been looking for. He leads the team in scoring, and has scored less than 9 points only once this season. Rush has upped his scoring average to over 16 per game in Big 12 play. He is a very good three-point shooter who can also score inside the arc, pulling up for shots or driving to the basket for finishes in the lane. Defensively, he has improved since last season, and has been assigned to the opponent’s best scorer on at least one occasion this season, holding Iowa State’s Michael Taylor to 7 of 23 shooting. Moreover, Rush is the team’s second-leading rebounder, averaging over 7 in Big 12 play. Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers also start in the backcourt for the Jayhawks. Robinson is an outstanding defender who provides a steady hand at the point. He leads the team in assists, and also has the ability to score if necessary. Robinson is not very efficient shooting the ball, but he can get into the lane against most defenders to create. Chalmers played well down the stretch last season, and was poised for a breakout season. However, he has been inconsistent. He followed up a four-game stretch where he averaged almost 19 points per game with a five-game stint of putting up less than 8 a contest. He shoots the ball well from long-range, and is one of the best defenders in the Big 12. Chalmers is very adept at stealing the ball, both by playing the passing lanes, and pick-pocketing ball-handlers. Freshman Sherron Collins comes off the bench, and has been one of the Jayhawks’ most consistent offensive option lately. He is a very good three-point shooter, and is fearless when driving into the lane. He is extremely athletic and can finish with the best of them. He is averaging over 12 points per game since Big 12 play began. Collins is also a good passer who has solid vision.
This promises to be one of the best Big 12 games all season. Unfortunately, it is the only time these two teams play. Both teams have balance offensively, with the ability to score inside and outside. Additionally, both Texas A&M and Kansas are terrific defensively. Kansas loves to force turnovers with their athletes on the perimeter, while A&M just gets up in your jersey and really disrupts the offense. The Jayhawks have the edge in overall athleticism, but the Aggies can shoot the lights-out from long-range and have more heft down low. Can Dominique Kirk slow down Brandon Rush? Will Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers harass Acie Law into a bad game at the point? Can Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur bang with Joseph Jones and Antanas Kavaliauskas down low? There are many questions to answer in this one, meaning it will definitely be an interesting game.
For Texas A&M to pull off the win on the road, they will need to do several things. First, they have to take care of the ball. Kansas thrives off of turnovers and transition baskets, as evidenced by their demolition of Oklahoma State a few weeks ago, who had 20 turnovers en route to a 30-point loss to the Jayhawks. Acie Law will need to take care of the basketball and not turn it over against Kansas’ defensive pressure in the half-court. Also offensively, A&M will need to knock down their three-pointers. They are an outstanding shooting team, but they can go cold at times, which would severely hurt the Aggies against Kansas. Josh Carter, especially, needs to hit his shots. Additionally, they have an advantage in terms of girth down low. Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur are very athletic and can block shots, but Joseph Jones is an absolute load down low with his size, and Antanas Kavaliauskas is even bigger. They need to establish the post game early. Defensively, Dominique Kirk will have to shut down Brandon Rush the way he has slowed other stars in the past. Taking Rush out of the game will force Kansas to find another go-to-guy, something they haven’t done well this season. Moreover, they will have to keep the game in a half-court setting. While they have the ability to get out and score, I don’t think the Aggies really want to run with Kansas.
Kansas also has some keys to the game. Offensively, they need to utilize their edge in athleticism and talent. Getting the ball to Wright on the perimeter, dragging Kavaliauskas or Jones away from the basket, will be important. He is quicker than both of them, and could find success driving to the lane. Moreover, the Jayhawks’ perimeter players will need to score. A&M has outstanding defenders on the perimeter in Law and Kirk, but Kansas needs points from outside the arc and from penetration. Rush also can’t afford to be taken out of the game by Kirk. Although KU has other perimeter scorers, he has developed into their go-to-guy, and has gotten away from deferring to other players. He will be key. Defensively, Sasha Kaun could play a major role in the paint. He is stronger than Arthur and Wright, and will need to slow down Jones and Kavaliauskas down low. Setting the tone early will be imperative. They can’t let the A&M bigs dominate the paint all night. Additionally, the small, quick guards will need to force turnovers from Law. If they can get points in transition and not have to go against the stifling A&M half-court offense, it will be easier to score. They also will have to account for Carter at all times. If Carter gets hot, the A&M offense is that much more efficient. When it comes down to it, A&M will have a tough time winning on the road in Lawrence. Kansas is not easy to beat at home, and Big 12 South teams simply don’t win there. Unless they make it a half-court game, and Kansas is having one of their off nights, the Jayhawks will come away with the victory.
Prediction: Kansas 70, Texas A&M 66
Prediction Record: 6-3