Originally written on Just Cover Blog  |  Last updated 11/14/14

Travis Trice needs a big game to keep the Zags honest

#2 OSU (-2.5) at #13 Kansas

This is one of those matchups that looks much better before you start thinking about it. “Kansas is great! One of the best programs in the country!” you may be thinking. While there is still talent on hand, this isn’t the Kansas Jayhawks team of the last few years. When you examine what the Jayhawks lost last year – the Morris twins, sharp-shooters Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar, and Josh Selby (the combination of which accoutned for 77% of the Jayhawks’ starts last year), your first instict would be that a program like Kansas replaced them with some top-notch recruits. While that’s sort of the case, it’s really not.

What happened? The Jayhawks did pull two big-time recruits – forward Ben McClemore and point-guard Naadir Tharpe. But, McClemore has yet to see the floor, and Tharpe only plays nine minutes a game. This is, despite having few returning contributors, an oddly old team. Of the seven-man rotation, there are two seniors and four juniors, only two of whom got extensive playing time.

The first, and most important, is Junior power-forward Thomas Robinson. Robinson, is, simply, a powerhouse revealed by the departure of the Morris twins. Robinson is the single most effective defensive rebounder in the nation, and among the most effective offensive rebounders. He’s not an overly efficient scorer, but still shoots over 51% on over thirteen shots a game. Given how often he handles the ball, he hardly turns it over, while averaging over a block and steal per game. To top it off, he’s very effective at getting to the line. He’s the best player on the Jayhawks’s roster, and is possibly the best all-around player that will be on the floor Saturday. Yes, I know Jared Sullinger is playing.

The other chief contributor  to the Jayhawks is senior point-guard Tyshawn Taylor. A fixture in the Jayhawk back-court for the past few years, Taylor is now being counted on as a scorer for the first time – and at first glance, he’s succeeding, scoring 17 a game with a 54% eFG%. In addition, he’s excelled at getting to the line – only two players in nation have been better. What’s come with that, however is turnovers. When he was just a facilitator, Taylor showed himself to be a reliable ball-handler, but this year, he’s averaging over four turnovers a game – more than he dishes the ball out. Is this a fluke, or is this a result of his greater offensive role? It remains to be seen.

Junior seven-footer Jeff Withey is an efficient scorer in limited opportunities who, like Robinson, excels on the glass in addition to being one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball. Combo-guard Elijah Johnson helps take some of the ball-handling and play-making duties from Taylor, but is a liability when asked to shoot. He and turnover-prone guard Trais Releford are the best defenders on the team, and round out the starting lineup, while the two only make 25% of eight combined three-point attempts a game. Past Taylor, the only reliable outside shooter is reserve guard Connor Teahen, who connects on 45% of his attempts.

Kansas plays a relatively fast-paced game, and sports strong presence on both sides of the court, but defense, where their shot-blocking (9th in the nation) keeps opponents to a paltry 37% shooting mark, and their defensive rebounding (13th in the nation) keep the opponents chances limited. The Jayhawks poorly defend beyond the arc, but this doesn’t mean the inside should be forfeited – they put the opposition on the line at an alarmingly high rate. On offense, the best thing they do is get the ball to Thomas Robinson – they’re very dependent on two-point scoring and on him and Taylor getting to the line.

The Buckeyes can’t expect to exploit the Jayhawks’ greatest defensive weakness – three-point shooting. After losing Jon Diebler and David Lighty, the only remaining effective outside shooter is William Buford. This leaves them to feed Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas in the paint, and to challenge the Kansas shot-blockers. Sullinger may get his shot blocked, but he’s extremely effective at drawing whistles while the Jayhawks tend to foul at a profligate rate. A key to the game will be how well the Jayhawks defend Sullinger – if they put him on the line a ton, they’ll have a long day. If they can make him work, they’ll have a shot.

The other key matchup will be the shaky Jayhawk ball-handlers against Aaron Craft – a turnover producing machine. Craft is the best ball-thief in NCAA basketball, a charge-drawing magnet, and an unbelivably irritating defender. Running mate Lenzelle Smith plays because of his defense and is nearly as disruptive as Craft. Taylor and Johnson need to possess the ball against this pressure.

When it comes down to it, the Jayhawks will have some success frustrating Sullinger and Thomas Robinson will likely have some success on the smaller Buckeye interior. But this game matches up two of the fifteen best defensive rebounding teams in the nation – nobody will be getting extra possessions on the offensive glass. The other opportunity for extra possessions – turnovers – isn’t nearly as even-handed. Expect to see Craft and Smith frustrate the Jayhawk guards into numerous mistakes, giving more opportunities to the deathly efficient Sullinger and William Buford.

Despite Sullinger’s bout with back problems, the Buckeyes are still 2.5 point favorites on the road. With him at full strength, it’s not a question – take the Buckeyes. They will still certainly need him, but expect the Buckeye defense to carry the day – take the Bucks and lay the points

MSU (+3.5) vs. #23 Gonzaga

Despite two early setbacks to Duke and North Carolina, this Michigan State team has, in the early going, resembled the Tom Izzo ideal much more than last year’s iteration. The Spartans play stifling defense inside and out (20th in eFG% against), crash the boards (12th in defensive rebounding, 20th in offensive) block shots, and score inside. What remains, however, is a struggling offense.

While they’ve found some improved play-making by committee (Draymond Green, Brandon Wood, and Keith Appling have all been solid), they still turn the ball over too much. While they’ve found a solid inside game on their offense (through Draymond Green, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix), they still can’t shoot from beyond the arc, where Travis Trice is the only shooter who has excelled thus far.

Gonzaga, for their part, excels on offense, with an oddly average defense. Their offense relies on two things: seven-footer Robert Sacre and forward Elias Harris getting to the line (Gonaga is one of the best teams in the nation at getting to the stripe), and freshmen Kevin Pangos and David Stockon (yes, son of John) drilling three-point shots from the perimeter. The inside-outside game is buoyed by Marquise Carter – an offensive cipher who rivals Aaron Craft in defensive intensity.

This matchup is very much strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Can the Gonzaga attack, so reliant on fouls, get to the line enough against the stout Spartan defense? Will Pangos and Stockton have shots on the perimeter? On the other end, can the mediocre Spartan offense score enough on the mediocre Bulldog defense? Will the shaky Spartan guards wilt under pressure from Marquise Carter?

With the Bulldogs at home, and a Western Conference referee team on site, expect the Bulldogs to eke out a tight win. The Bulldogs live at the line, and with the homecourt and home refs, they should get the opportunites to continue to thrive in that respect. Pick the Zags, but if you notice them having a hard time with the refs, it may be time to start checking 2nd half bets for a hedge.

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