Michigan State empathically moved from the round of 64 to the round of 32 with a massive 20 point rout of Miami. That is fantastic news, but it means a face-off against the number one seeded Jayhawks of Kansas.
The Only Colors: So, KU dropped the opener to Indiana (RIP Tom Crean's B1G coaching career) but rebounded quick and broke into the top 4 in the country in week three and never dropped out in route to a number 1 seed. Is this a year when the Allen Fieldhouse faithful are feeling like anything less than a championship is a failure?
Rock Chalk Talk: Final Four expectations are pretty much par for the course around these parts. Kansas fans love Bill Self, but are perplexed that he only has two Final Fours in 13 seasons. It should be noted there are an additional four Elite 8 runs there, but the Final Four is the goal. The 2010 team spent most of the year at #1, but was stunned by a vastly under-seeded Northern Iowa team. 2011 should have seen a Final Four team, but then VCU hits 50% from three while KU goes 2-21 in an Elite 8 matchup. 2014 was looking good but then Embiid went down and the Jayhawks fell to Stanford. In 2015 a hobbled Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis couldn't keep up with an under-seeded Wichita State squad that had two NBA players on it and all of the #Motivation to prove themselves.
Maybe that sounds like excuse making; regardless, you have to beat the teams in front of you. We know that every team is going to have to beat several good teams to win a championship, but a combination of injuries and underseeded opponents have conspired against the Jayhawks. But some of those upsets (VCU, Bucknell, Bradley) have no excuse.
Fun fact - Bill Self has never been seeded lower than a 4 since his arrival at Kansas, which, if we're honest, makes getting upset more likely, since you have to advance farther into the tournament to meet a like-seeded team. And after the first round, even as a 1-seed it's likely you're facing a top-40 team that has the capability of beating anyone, even if it isn't super likely.
Unfortunately, all people want to look at are Final Fours and national championships. In my mind, it's difficult to judge a season, a team, a coach, or even a program by single-elimination playoff tournament. Too many crazy things can and have happened. How often does the best team in college basketball actually win the tournament? All people want to look at are Final Fours and national championships though. Would you rather be Kansas and be a top four seed every year, or would you rather be Kentucky and get a couple of Final Fours but also have an 8-seed, not to mention completely missing the Tournament once (and losing to Robert Morris in the NIT)?
I'm sorry, I rambled there. To answer the original question, no, anything less than a championship is not a failure. However, anything less than a Final Four should be considered a failure, especially this year, considering the senior leadership and the superior guard play.
The Only Colors: Josh Jackson was obviously close to choosing MSU until he decided to play in Lawrence. How big has he been for your team this year?
Rock Chalk Talk: Josh Jackson has been amazing. Before he got here, people wanted to compare him to Andrew Wiggins, and Bill Self fielded a lot of questions along those lines. As it turned out, their season-long stat lines are virtually identical. He's averaging over 30 minutes per game, 16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block per game this season (Wiggins 32 mpg, 17 ppg, 6 rpg, 1 bpg). He is every bit the high-flyer and great defender that all the recruitniks raved about.
Additionally, his shot has improved throughout the season. In nonconfernce play, he shot just 27% from behind the arc. In Big 12 play, that number jumped to just over 40%.
Frank Mason and Devonte Graham are the leaders of this KU team, but without Josh Jackson providing matchup problems on the wing, KU would have lost a lot more than 4 times this year.
The Only Colors: Bill Self is typically an inside/outside type of coach but this year he has been running a lot more 4 guard sets (to much success). What do you think the weakness is of this team right now? AKA: Tell us how to beat you.
Rock Chalk Talk: As long as you don't forward this to Tom Izzo, I'll tell you.
KU's strength is on the perimeter, as you noted. So, anyone who has a strong interior game (scoring and rebounding) and is efficient offensively could give Kansas fits. A lot of us at RCT were worried about Miami, as they are an excellent rebounding team and a top-40 defensive team. It seemed like it might be a bad matchup for the Jayhawks, but then Michigan State goes and outrebounds Miami by 13 while shooting 56% from the field.
The other concern about teams with good interior games is foul trouble. If Landen Lucas were to pick up two early fouls, Bill Self will bench him. (Self has a hard time playing guys with two fouls in the first half.) The more we see of Dwight Coleby, Carlton Bragg, and Mitch Lightfoot in the first half, the less we like our chances. Also, drive on #10 (Svi Mykhailiuk) whenever you get the chance. Svi has been an open door to the rim for opponents this year which means attacking him will force Lucas to help, which increases the likelihood of contact and him getting a whistle.
Alternatively, do like Iowa State did earlier this year in Allen Fieldhouse and bury 18 three-pointers. That works too.
The Only Colors: What is Perry Ellis III up to these days? Is he playing in a 55 and old league at a Rec Center in Topeka?
Rock Chalk Talk: It's funny you ask that, I just visited him and Wayne Simien in their retirement home last night. We played a nice game of dominoes and had some chocolate ice cream.
Last I heard, he was in the D-league after failing to make the Charlotte Hornets roster out of camp. A quick Google search has confirmed that he is indeed on the roster of the Greensboro Swarm, the Hornets' affiliate. Just this past Thursday he played 25 minutes, putting up 13 points on 5-10 shooting (including 3-5 from behind the arc) and 4-4 from the stripe. He added 6 rebounds and an assist.
The Only Colors: Okay, back to your current squad. I wonder who is the "guy" at the end of games that Jayhawk fans want to have the ball. Is it Jackson or is it Mason?
Rock Chalk Talk: No brainer here, this is Mason all the way. Frank is easily this team's best three-point shooter at over 48% on the season, and while Jackson (and Bragg and Lucas) do have higher overall field goal percentages than Mason, Frank is still the man you want with the ball. While Josh Jackson and even Devonte Graham have had their clutch moments as well, if it's crunch time and KU needs a basket to win it, MSU doesn't want Frank to take that shot. I think you have to force someone else to beat you.
The Only Colors: Now for the fun part, prediction time! Do you think Bill Self goes full Bill Self or Does Tom Izzo's second weekend record go from 7-1 to 7-2?
Rock Chalk Talk: While I am bothered by the sheer volume of close games this Kansas team has been in this year, it is encouraging to know that they have won almost every single one of them. Tom Izzo is good in the NCAA Tournament; after all, he's won 72% of his games this time of year. But he's not Bill Self good (74%). Am I kidding? Even I can't tell.
I will say, since 2000-01, Self and Izzo are extremely comparable in March. I'm not sure either team will have an edge in coaching, but I do think in this matchup that KU will have the better players on the floor. Just like we've done all season long, I'll take a win any way I can get it, so give me the Jayhawks in a close and uncomfortable 81-76 affair.
Thanks to Mike for taking time to answer these questions. fingers crossed he gets the score right but the teams wrong. Make sure to check out Rock Chalk Talk for my responses to his questions.