AVOID STEALS, SHOOT IT WELL
Eastern Kentucky’s players said multiple times Thursday that they plan to use defense to make Kansas uncomfortable, but believing that can happen depends on which statistic is being examined.
The Colonels allow opponents to shoot 48.2 percent, 338th-best out of 345 NCAA Division I teams. EKU does, however, make it difficult for teams to shoot in the first place.
EKU is seventh nationally in steals, the product of a smaller lineup that relies more on quickness and good hands then physical play and favorable post matchups. Three Colonels average at least one steal and a fourth, Tarius Johnson, is just below that mark.
“We have to play our defense,” said Corey Walden, who leads EKU with 73 steals. “We have to steal the ball from them and just cause them to turn it over, and just be everywhere on the court and give effort everywhere.”
Kansas might be susceptible to such an approach because the Jayhawks rank 91st in turnovers per game and feature four players – three freshmen – with 64 turnovers or more.
“That’s the biggest focus when you come into any game, you don’t want to commit turnovers,” Kansas senior center Tarik Black said. “That’s been a big focus for us throughout the season, handling the ball, making smart plays with the ball.”
Eastern Kentucky might not be the team most likely to exploit the absence of injured center Joel Embiid from KU’s front line. The Colonels don’t have a player taller than 6-foot-8 and all of their top four scorers are 6-5 and smaller.
The Jayhawks’ height advantage, even without Embiid, could allow them to offset EKU’s aggressive defense. KU’s rotation includes Black, Perry Ellis, Andrew Wiggins and Jamari Traylor, all 6-8 or taller.
“It has been our experience that usually when teams pressure like that, they are playing to their strengths or their skill set,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We’re a team that likes to play through our bigs, so somehow we need to negate the pressure so we don’t forget about playing through our bigs.
“That’s easier said than done.”
MAKING THE MOST
Eastern Kentucky’s goal is to maximize each possession, and the Colonels come closer to doing so than most.
EKU is in the top 50 nationally in turnovers at 10.7, and they rank fifth with 1.17 points per possession. Much of that comes from its 303 three-pointers, but the Colonels also rank in the top 20 in field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage.
“You have to take care of the basketball,” EKU coach Jeff Neubauer said. “All right, well, that’s one thing we do well also, one of the 10-best teams in the country at valuing the ball, but you cannot give them fast-break layups or dunks. We can’t afford to give them any of those.”
ON THE GLASS
The area where Eastern Kentucky’s post deficiencies show up most is rebounding, where it ranks 342nd out of 345 Division I teams at 26.2 per game. KU averages 26.3 defensive rebounds and the advantage is pronounced when factoring the Jayhawks’ 11.8 on the offensive end.
Limiting KU’s offensive rebounds could be a key to the Colonels staying close early.
“If we are playing from behind, that just takes so much energy, especially when it’s one-and-done time,” Neubauer said. “…Getting the lead, not only for us, but for all teams this time of year, is very important.”