For the third straight season, Kansas is back in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament, this time facing the Duke Blue Devils.
This is a round that has plagued Kansas in recent memory, after losing in 2016 to eventual national champions Villanova and in 2017 to Oregon in the Sprint Center.
However, this Kansas team is not like those past teams in that the 2017-18 Jayhawks have been doubted at every stage of the season.
Many didn’t believe that they would win a 14th straight Big 12 regular season conference title, a Big 12 tournament championship or even make it to this stage in the tournament.
Yet, here they are, going against a Duke team who coach Bill Self regards as “possibly the most talented team left in the tournament.”
Duke is the only team in the nation in the top ten in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced offensive and defensive metrics, first in offense and ninth in defense. They are led by senior guard Grayson Allen and freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, Allen having 14 games of tournament experience and Bagley III being named an All-American.
The Blue Devils have plenty of size, something that could prove to be a large problem for Kansas. Duke has four players at 6-foot-10 or higher, including Bagley III and freshman forward Wendell Carter, Jr.
The matchup down low on the block is the factor that everyone is looking at, and rightfully so. On the Kansas side, sophomore forward Udoka Azubuike has been a force this season and his hurt knee looked close to full strength in the Sweet 16 victory over Clemson Friday night.
If the Jayhawks are to compete, sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot and freshman forward Silvio De Sousa will have to come to play. They’ll need to bring a change of pace off the bench to compete with the size and aggressive play of Duke’s star forwards.
Even with the size being a much talked about note for this upcoming game, Self believes that Duke may have to adjust to Kansas’ quick style of play on the perimeter.
“If we play our game, and everybody’s talking about how do we match up with them, hopefully we can be in a game that forces them to play a little differently to match up with us,” Self said.
The perimeter is where Kansas has shined all season, and I believe will continue to shine. Senior guards Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will need to make the outside shots they’ve been accustomed to making, especially with Duke making the infamous switch to a zone defense as of late.
The key factor for Kansas, though, will be redshirt sophomore Malik Newman who has been on fire offensively since the Big 12 conference tournament. Newman, the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, scored 72 points in the Big 12 conference tournament and is averaging 18.3 points per game in the NCAA tournament.
He has finally come to be the dangerous scorer that many had hoped he would become after transferring from Mississippi State.
Defensively, the guard play will be challenged as one guard will more than likely have to at least defend Carter, Jr. or another Duke forward with a clear height advantage.
The Jayhawks also may struggle heavily in the rebounding battle. But, if Kansas is able to get out quick in transition then they will force Duke to change their style of play drastically.
Both of these teams deserve to be here, as anyone who has watched college basketball knows Duke and Kansas are as good as it gets. This will be Duke’s 21st Elite Eight appearance and Kansas’ 22nd.
History will be a backdrop to what should be an excellent matchup for a trip to San Antonio for the 2018 Final Four.
Both these teams play vastly different styles of offense and defense, making this come down to a bout of who simply executes the best and who takes advantages of mental mistakes.
Duke has size and will more than likely dominate on the rebounding front. However, Kansas’ offense will be the turning point for the Jayhawks and get Self to his third Final Four.
75 – 73 Kansas over Duke
The guard play for Kansas will be too much for Duke to handle in their zone defense. Newman will go off and Graham will break out of his shooting slump in March. Third time will be the charm for the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight.
Jackson Schneider and Jared Lenz will be on the call on KJHK 90.7 FM with pregame coverage starting at 3 pm and tip-off scheduled for 4:05 pm.
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featured image courtesy of the Lawrence Journal World