If you are a fan of the Kansas Jayhawks, life is pretty good right now. The team is currently sitting on top of the Big 12 Conference with a 23-3 record overall and an 11-2 record in conference play. They hold a two-game lead over the Baylor Bears, who are sitting in second. In addition to that, they are ranked third overall in the entire country.
As things stand right now, the Jayhawks look to be in a pretty good spot to claim one of the four number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament. We are just under a month away from Selection Sunday, which will be on March 12 this year, so plenty can still happen between now and then. But as long as Kansas does not lose a few games or collapses in the Big 12 tournament (which will be held between March 8-11), that one seed is probably a pretty safe bet.
But just because they are likely to be the top team in their region, do not be so quick to simply move them straight through to the Final Four. There are a few reasons to believe that the Jayhawks could falter along the way Phoenix. They are actually the big name team I see falling first in this season’s Big Dance.
Since I am a numbers guy, I tend to base a lot of my thinking off of statistics and numbers. But before I get into those, let me touch on a few other concerns. First off, their depth. For a sport that sees five guys on the court at a time, having at least eight or nine guys who can at least be serviceable can become important, especially in a tournament style setting. The Jayhawks have six guys they lean on very heavily, followed by two more guys they give a little bit of time too. But that’s really it.
Three of their players average over 30 minutes a game. Their leader is Frank Mason III, who is a senior guard, is on the court for nearly 36 of 40 minutes every night they play. That amount of time on the court is certainly going to catch up to Mason and the team, especially when they are playing in the tournament style setting.
My next concern comes from the eye test. There is no denying that this team has some seriously talented players. Mason is tremendous and freshman guard Josh Jackson can certainly be a game-changer. There are a few more guys who I could praise from a talent point of view, but I do not want to bore you with a list of names. So instead I will get to the point I do not like from watching a few Kansas games.
The team is not exactly the best at handling the end of games. There have been a few times I have noticed the Jayhawks up by maybe eight to 12 points with roughly five or so minutes left in the game. In such a scenario, you would expect them to slow the pace and work the clock a little bit. But instead, Jackson will simply try to drive to the hoop with maybe five seconds running off the clock. That style of play will catch up to a team as they continue to play higher skilled opponents. Yes, they have been able to hold on in the games I saw, but try doing that against the likes of Arizona and UCLA and it simply will not end the same way.
Now for my favorite part, the numbers! Let me just state these specific numbers are pulled from about two weeks ago, meaning their last two or three games will not be factored in. But the overall numbers will not have changed dramatically.
First thing I look at is scoring margin, with 10 being my benchmark for a true contender. So when you see 11.8 for Kansas, you would wonder why I am questioning them, right? Well, let’s take a closer look at their margin in games against tournament quality teams. They beat West Virginia by four after needing a ferocious comeback. They beat Kansas State, who is not a lock for March Madness, by three. A home game against Iowa State saw them fall by three. Some other margins include wins by five, six, four plus a loss by 16. So that 11.8 is certainly a little misleading.
Next comes their created possession margin as well as point per shot. Those numbers look fine. While they do not create turnovers, they out-rebound opponents by about five boards a game, which is right on the benchmark that I look for. They shoot the ball well and rather effectively, which is what has gotten them to this point.
But now we get to some of their flaws. While it is right on the cusp, their three point defense is just under the bar I would like a team to reach. They allow their opponents score 36.8 percent of their threes, which could come back to bite them if they faced a team who knows how to hit the long range shots.
But it is the foul line that will get them in the most trouble. They commit 18.6 fouls a game, which is a little more than I would like to see. But what is worse is their free throw shooting percentage. As of this writing, they shoot 64.8 percent from the line. That ranks them 312th out of 347 college teams in division one college basketball. That is a far cry from the 70 percent a team should be shooting from the charity stripe.
So when the Jayhawks are in a close game against a big time opponent in the Sweet Sixteen, a late lead will mean virtually nothing. This is going to be their ultimate downfall, as knocking down free throws is certainly their Achille’s heal.
By the time the Elite Eight rolls around, I do not expect to see this Kansas team still around. As a one seed, they should be able to roll through their first game. With the wrong eight or nine seed in their region, game two could see some issues. But by the time they get to game three, the level of competition will be at a point that sees the Jayhawks fall.
So just remember this article when you go to fill in your 2017 bracket. As tempting as it is to keep moving those one seeds along, it is not always that easy.