Before every KU men’s basketball game, The Star’s Jesse Newell previews the Jayhawks’ upcoming opponent with a scouting report and prediction.
Saturday’s game: No. 4 seed Kansas vs. No. 5 seed Auburn, approximately 8:40 p.m. Central time, Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City
Opponent’s record: 27-9
KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 13
Point spread: Auburn by 2.
All statistics from KenPom.com, Hoop-Math.com and Synergy Sports Technology. KenPom stats also only include Division I competition.
▪ Three-point shooting: Auburn has managed to make 38 percent of its threes (22nd nationally) while putting up a huge volume, as 50 percent of the team’s field-goal attempts this season have been from the perimeter.
▪ Creating havoc: The Tigers are the best pressuring team in the nation, ranking first in both defensive turnover percentage and steal rate.
▪ Transition offense: Auburn loves to run, ranking 59th in fast-break frequency and fifth in adjusted shooting percentage in those situations.
▪ Defensive rebounding: This has been a consistent struggle for Auburn, which ranks 331st in D-board percentage.
▪ Three-point defense: The Tigers do not run teams off the three-point line, as their opponents have attempted 44 percent of their field goals from three — the 28th-highest split nationally.
▪ In-between shooting: Auburn does a great job of avoiding mid-range jumpshots, which is good for the team based on how poorly it has shot from there; the Tigers are 350th in mid-range percentage, with Synergy’s logs ranking them 251st on jumpers shorter than 17 feet and dead last on ones between 17 and 20 feet.
3 Players to Watch
5-foot-11 guard Jared Harper (No. 1)
Plus: Fourth in KenPom’s SEC player of the year rankings
Plus: High-volume, accurate three-point shooter
Plus: Ultra-confident; will pull up from deep, off dribble and also early in shot clock
Plus: Draws fouls often and is 82 percent at the free-throw line
Plus: Excellent passer
Minus: Poor finisher at the rim
Minus: Synergy’s logs indicate he’s one of team’s weaker defenders
6-foot-3 guard Bryce Brown (No. 2)
Plus: Elite three-point shooter; has more makes than any other Power Five player this season
Plus: Outstanding in transition, both at rim and on spot-up threes
Plus: Great shooter off the dribble
Plus: Synergy’s logs rate him as “very good” overall defender
Minus: Doesn’t create contact often
Minus: Poor shooter in mid-range
6-foot-8 forward Chuma Okeke (No. 5)
Plus: Disruptive, versatile defender who ranks top 150 in both block and steal rate
Plus: 38-percent three-point shooter who takes outside shots often
Plus: Strong finisher at the rim
Plus: Good offensive rebounder
Minus: Can struggle on the defensive glass
Minus: Not a good mid-range shooter
There’s no doubt Auburn is a team of extremes.
The Tigers — among top 15 schools — play among the most unique style both offensively and defensively, selling out for steals while also doubling down on high variance with a belief that their three-point shooting won’t let them down in a big enough sample.
It’s honestly tough to know how KU will respond to all this. Coach Bill Self mentioned Friday that the Jayhawks hadn’t faced a team like Auburn all season, as one of the Tigers’ calling cards is putting constant pressure on opponents.
KU has been both good and bad at dealing with teams that force turnovers this season. The Jayhawks completely lost their composure in road losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State, while also playing much better against those same teams in comfortable victories at Allen Fieldhouse.
So here, on a neutral floor with high stakes? It’s a little more difficult to predict how this might play out.
We’ve talked often in this spot about KU’s season-long struggles defending threes, which will obviously be tested Saturday like it was against Northeastern. Honestly, though, I think the bigger fear for KU has to be the possibility of not taking advantage of Auburn’s deficiencies.
The Tigers, more than anything, have a weakness of allowing too many three-point shots. And while there was a time about a month ago following a Devonté Graham FaceTime that KU appeared supremely confident taking threes, some of that has worn off in recent weeks, with KU especially posting lower-than-normal three-point rates in its three-game stretch during the Big 12 Tournament.
Auburn’s also bad on the defensive glass, but again, this hasn’t been a KU specialty. And while Dedric Lawson perhaps could thrive some there, he’s also looking at the type of defensive matchup he’s typically struggled against this season — going against athletic, shot-blocking bigs.
To win, KU likely needs to get up a volume of shots, not only for the chance at offensive rebounds but also to avoid crippling turnovers that often turn into quick points for the transition-based Tigers.
The Jayhawks — starting four freshmen — will need to play with confidence to counteract Auburn’s purposeful aggressiveness.
This KU team might just do that. Based off recent tendencies, though, I definitely could see the Jayhawks turning hesitant offensively ... and if that happens, Auburn will be tough to beat.
Auburn 76, Kansas 70
Jesse’s pick to cover spread: Auburn
Hawk to Rock
There are no guarantees that he’ll make shots, but Quentin Grimes comes in with both the skillset and frame of mind needed to be successful against Auburn. He’s been KU’s least hesitant to attempt spot-up threes lately, and coaches have even noted that he’s become more decisive in transition as well. Dedric Lawson will likely need some offensive help with this matchup, and Grimes is one of KU’s best-positioned to step into a bigger scoring role Saturday.
Last game prediction: Kansas 75, Northeastern 65 (Actual: KU 87-53)
2018-19 record vs. spread: 21-14
Last five seasons’ record vs. spread: 98-76-3