University of Kansas

Quick scout: Here’s the biggest positive for KU against Northeastern

Bill Self on NCAA Tournament, Jayhawks’ first-round matchup against Northeastern

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self met with the media on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, ahead of his teams opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies.
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Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self met with the media on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, ahead of his teams opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies.

Before every KU men’s basketball game, The Star’s Jesse Newell previews the Jayhawks’ upcoming opponent with a scouting report and prediction.

Thursday’s game: No. 4 seed Kansas vs. No. 13 seed Northeastern, Approximately 3 p.m. central, Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City

TV: TNT

Opponent’s record: 23-10

KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 78

Point spread: KU by 6 1/2.

All statistics from KenPom.com, Hoop-Math.com and Synergy Sports Technology. KenPom stats also only include Division I competition.

3 Strengths

Three-point shooting: Northeastern has the 22nd-highest three-point volume rate and also has made 39 percent of those tries (13th nationally).

Ball security: The Huskies get a shot nearly every possession, ranking 58th in offensive turnover percentage.

Defensive rebounding: Northeastern, while only average height-wise, has done a great job on the defensive glass, ranking 19th in D-board rate.

3 Weaknesses

Offensive rebounding: This is philosophical; Northeastern struggles to defend in transition, so coach Bill Coen usually sends only his center to the offensive glass.

Creating havoc: The Huskies are mostly a passive/position-based defensive team, ranking 288th in defensive turnover percentage.

Interior defense: Northeastern is poor in basically every inside defensive category: two-point field-goal percentage defense (272nd), block percentage (325th), percentage of opponents’ shots at the rim (204th) and field-goal percentage against at the rim (263rd).

3 Players to Watch

6-foot-5 guard Vasa Pusica (No. 4)

Pusica_Vasa.jpg

Plus: Ranks fifth in KenPom’s CAA player of the year metric

Plus: High-volume, accurate three-point shooter

Plus: Draws fouls often and is 84-percent free-throw shooter

Plus: Can get to rim off bounce and is good finisher there

Plus: Strong passer

Minus: Can struggle to defend in pick-and-roll situations

6-foot-1 guard Jordan Roland (No. 12)

Roland_Jordan.jpg

Plus: Has shot most threes on team while making 41 percent

Plus: One of nation’s best at avoiding turnovers

Plus: Choosy on two-point shots, but accurate when he takes them

Plus: 90-percent free-throw shooter

Minus: Rarely gets to free-throw line

Minus: Not one of team’s better passers

6-foot-4 guard Shawn Occeus (No. 1)

Occeus_Shawn.jpg

Plus: CAA’s defensive player of the year in 2017-18

Plus: Appears to be near full strength after a leg injury kept him out of 10 games in February and March

Plus: Confident player who can guard numerous positions on perimeter

Plus: Does great job of closing out on three-point shooters

Minus: Inefficient offensive player overall

Minus: Below-average shooter at rim and free-throw line

Prediction

There are many reasons to think KU might not like this particular matchup against Northeastern.

The main one, as we’ve talked about before, is that KU has had a tendency to struggle in games where it allows a high number of three-point attempts. Northeastern certainly could challenge the Jayhawks there, as the Huskies put so much pressure on opponents to defend the perimeter that they’ve also managed a top-10 two-point percentage while getting to the rim often.

KU coach Bill Self also has at least mentioned the idea of going small to match up with Northeastern, which potentially would take minutes away from David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot. That’s not an ideal scenario, especially with KU already playing with a thin bench. Add in the potential fatigue effects that Salt Lake City’s altitude might have, and KU’s rotation problem certainly could become even worse.

Here’s a positive for KU, though: Northeastern is not good defensively. Though Occeus appears to be a likely matchup for Devon Dotson — the freshman point guard is KU’s most invaluable player on the perimeter — the Jayhawks still have a huge size and athleticism advantage. If Self does choose, for example, to play McCormack extended minutes, it would give the Jayhawks a massive edge inside, with Dedric Lawson and McCormack both likely to find themselves with openings for shots at the rim.

The Jayhawks also should get out in transition at every opportunity. The Huskies send four guys back for good reason, as when opponents are able to run against them, they’ve had success.

KenPom’s numbers have KU by 8, while Bart Torvik’s site — usually pessimistic on the Jayhawks — has an 8.8-point line.

I can see some justification for gamblers moving this spread down a couple points, but in the end, it might be a slight overreach. Self has had four days to change his team’s defensive principles for this matchup, and he’s also proven over time to be a nimble in-game coach, which could be needed as both teams adjust to each other.

This is not a gimme for KU by any means, but the fact is, the Jayhawks are the better team and have the potential to overwhelm the Huskies with easy baskets. If KU’s three-point defense can be even slightly bothersome — and it was more than that in an earlier game against Wofford with a perimeter focus — then I actually like the Jayhawks for an easier win than Vegas anticipates.

Kansas 75, Northeastern 65

Jesse’s pick to cover spread: Kansas

Hawk to Rock

Teams that play four-guard lineups, in general, will have difficulty defending Dedric Lawson. Northeastern will likely find even more trouble than most when KU goes to a small lineup, though, as 5 men Anthony Green and Tomas Murphy have rated both as poor defenders overall and also when trying to guard opponents on the perimeter. Coen also seemed to give away the secret (if there was one) when talking to reporters about Lawson on Wednesday: “Leading scorer, leading rebounder in the Big 12, outstanding player and a difficult matchup for us.” Twenty-plus points for Lawson should be a lock Thursday.

Last game prediction: Iowa State 73, Kansas 70 (Actual: ISU 78-66)

2018-19 record vs. spread: 20-14

Last five seasons’ record vs. spread: 97-76-3

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KU's Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson talk about their win over Northeastern in the NCAA Tournament opener and preparing for Saturday's game against Auburn.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.


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