Brian Goodman is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from the Kansas City pod of this weekend.
Three Key Takeaways:
- For 35 minutes, Western Kentucky evoked ghosts of Kansas tournament past, but not in the classical sense. Even dating back to the Paul Pierce era, the Jayhawks have lost tournament heartbreakers and pulled out near-misses to far inferior teams with undersized sweet-shooting talents. That wasn’t the case tonight, as Western Kentucky held a 31-30 halftime lead despite just one made three. Rather, the Hilltopers made good use of George Fant’s fearlessness, Jamal Crook’s elusiveness and T.J. Price’s nose for the ball to send the hometown crowd into a prolonged state of anxiety. Western Kentucky matched Kansas in the shooting department in the first half, but frustrated Jeff Withey into a pair of fouls and outdoing the Jayhawks on the glass. Kansas’ backcourt struggled mightily, leaving the bulk of the work to Withey and freshman Perry Ellis. Kansas’ defense adjusted at halftime – what else would you expect from Bill Self? – and forced Western Kentucky into an icy 20.5% clip in the second half.
- Jeff Withey saved Kansas from the wrong side of history. The Jayhawks’ paint protector dug KU out of the mess with big blocks and baskets in the closing minutes. Withey rejected seven shots total, which begs the question of why exactly the Hilltoppers continued to run at him. Fant had some success against him in the first half, but the Big 12′s all-time blocks leader was having none of it after the intermission, and his contributions on both ends of the court helped Kansas avoid an historic upset. One of the big storylines Sunday will be how Bill Self utilizes his center against a heavily perimeter-oriented Tar Heel squad.
- The Jayhawks will need much more out of its backcourt on Sunday. Against a far inferior squad, Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore combined for just 21 points, a handful of which came in the closing seconds as Western Kentucky desperately tried to come back. The issue wasn’t as much Jamal Crook, Caden Dickerson and T.J. Price being problematic defensively as much as Kansas making suspect decisions. The Jayhawk backcourt finished the game sloppily in the closing seconds, giving Western Kentucky several opportunities that it didn’t earn down the stretch. Looking forward, Kansas has struggled against pressure defense throughout the season, so it will definitely be interesting to see how the Tar Heels approach the Jayhawks defensively.
Star Of The Game: Jeff Withey (17 points, six rebounds, seven blocks) - Kansas’ center was everywhere Friday night, coming up huge in the second half to give KU’s sputtering offense the opportunities it needed to gain separation. It became mind-boggling to see the Hilltoppers continue to dribble right at Withey, and he turned them away at seemingly every opportunity.