Utah vs. Kansas: Three Keys on Each Side

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 12th, 2014

One of the bigger games of the weekend takes place in Kansas City on Saturday, with Utah riding its recent success to take a shot at the Jayhawks. Below, Pac-12 microsite writer Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) and Big 12 microsite writer Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) break down the keys for the Utes and Jayhawks, respectively.

Three Keys for Utah

The Glass. Given recent history and if you didn’t know anything about these teams’ current rosters, you’d figure that the Kansas roster is filled with glass-eating big men while the Utes were made up of undersized, scrappy kids along the front line. Instead it is Utah that has the seven-footer in the middle, long and athletic wings littering the roster, and a 6’5” future pro running the point. Freshman center Jakob Poeltl is the best offensive rebounder in the nation (grabbing more than 20 percent of his team’s misses when he’s on the floor), while the rest of the Utah bigs go equally hard to the boards on offense, and their guards even chip in a bit too. Priority one, as Utah faces a Kansas team with its own future lottery pick in the middle (Cliff Alexander), is to continue to outrebound its foe, especially on the offensive end. Guys like Poeltl and Chris Reyes and Brekkot Chapman (to name just a few) may not be all that polished on the offensive end, so getting easy hoops in the paint will be a prerequisite to any hopes of a Utah win in Kansas City.

A big day from Delon Wright is paramount to Utah's chances of beating Kansas tomorrow (USA TODAY Sports)

A big day from Delon Wright is paramount to Utah’s chances of beating Kansas. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Star. Delon Wright is undeniably very good. He does almost everything on the court: He scores in the paint and in transition, sets up teammates with easy hoops, rebounds the ball on both ends of the floor, grabs steals, blocks shots, provides on-court leadership, and even gets to the line and knocks in his freebies. But in Utah’s one loss this season, he was, well, not good. Against San Diego State, he made just two of his 13 field goal attempts (both in the waning moments of a comeback attempt), turned it over three times, and was generally ineffective in helping his team put points on the scoreboard. That can’t happen against Kansas tomorrow. He needs to play within himself, set up his teammates and, when the opportunity presents itself, get his own. If Wright has a subpar game, Utah cannot win.

The End. Last year Utah was 3-8 in games decided by two possessions or fewer (and for once, this isn’t necessarily an arbitrary number, because since the start of the 2013-14 season, most of Utah’s games have been either tight ballgames or total blowouts). This season, Utah lost its first tight game (San Diego State), then controlled its game against Wichita State for about 38.5 minutes before trying to yack it away in the waning moments. Against BYU, the Utes made a habit of controlling the bulk of each half only to fade significantly in the final five minutes. Enough of that nonsense. If you’re going to beat the Jayhawks in Kansas City, you’d better close hard.

Three Keys For Kansas

Keep Up the Point Guard Play. Frank Mason has emerged as Kansas’ best option at the point, averaging 10.6 points, 3.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game against 2.1 turnovers per contest. While he isn’t a top-flight point guard, he’s provided an answer so far to the Jayhawks’ biggest question entering the season. As a ball-handler, Mason has shown confidence in his driving ability (although that goes both ways if you’re a Kansas fan), and has grown as a passer and as a defender. He’ll be undersized if he’s matched up against Delon Wright, but if that ends up the case, it could be the biggest key to the game.

The jump shot may not be Kansas' weapon of choice, but three days after Brannen Greene torched Georgetown from deep, the Jayhawks will need another strong shooting day. (AP)

The jump shot may not be Kansas’ weapon of choice, but three days after Brannen Greene torched Georgetown from deep, the Jayhawks may need to range out once again. (AP)

Contain Poeltl. The absence of a rim-protector in the mold of Jeff Withey or Joel Embiid will be felt along Kansas’ frontcourt on Saturday, as Cliff Alexander, Perry Ellis and role players Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor will all yield a height advantage to the 7’0″ import. Alexander and Lucas have the strength to defend Poeltl in the post, but they haven’t shared the court all that much this year, so they’ll likely instead play the role of help defender for Ellis. Both Alexander and Lucas can be foul-prone, which is a weakness Poeltl will exploit if the opportunity arises, so they’ll need to be effective but careful when the Utes look inside.

Have A Good Shooting Day. The Jayhawks haven’t been potent as a jump-shooting team this season, preferring to use Ellis’ creativity and Alexander’s muscle to get high-percentage looks. But given Utah’s long and athletic frontcourt, they’ll need to do some damage away from the bucket if they want to add yet another impressive win to their resume. Brannen Greene had a fantastic game against Georgetown on Wednesday night, going 5-of-5 from the perimeter on his way to a career-high 19 points. He won’t need to be perfect again, but either he, Wayne Selden or Svi Mykhailiuk will need to chip in from outside to not only score points, but to stretch the interior  as well.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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