The Michigan State Spartans will start off the 2021-2022 season at the historic Madison Square Garden in New York City, going into a heavyweight bout with the No. 3-ranked Kansas Jayhawks as part of the annual Champions Classic. Just like the Spartans, Bill Self’s boys didn’t have as good a season as they are accustomed to down there in Lawrence a year ago and the big name matchup should provide both teams with an early measuring stick for how improved things are this time around. Let’s have a closer look at the birds from Kansas, the game specifics and at how the Spartans match up with the formidable foe from the Big 12.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021
7:00 pm Eastern Time
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
HOW LAST SEASON WENT FOR THE JAYHAWKS
For roughly a million decades, the Kansas Jayhawks have reigned supreme over the Big 12 Conference, but in recent years the storied program has fallen on some relatively hard times as the Jayhawks haven’t won a league title in two of the last three seasons — last year, Kansas finished second in the conference, and ended the season 21-9 overall after a Round of 32 exit in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, this statistic has to be seen with a wink of an eye, but in general there certainly is some unrest at a place where they expect to compete for national titles year in and year out.
Even more disturbing for the Jayhawks fan base last season was the 51-85 Round of 32 disaster as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament against No. 6 seed USC, a game in which the Jayhawks basically never even were competitive. While last year’s team had its moments and especially showed signs of life toward the end of the regular season — winning eight of nine before missing the Big 12 Conference Tournament due to a COVID situation — overall it was a disappointing year based on the high expectations for a perennial powerhouse like KU.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
PG Remy Martin (Sr., 6-0, 175 lbs, 19.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 43.3% FG, 34.6 % 3P*)
SG Dajuan Harris (So., 6-1, 170 lbs, 2.4 points, 1.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 48.2% FG, 64.3 % 3P)
SF Ochai Agbaji (Jr., 6-5, 215 lbs, 14.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 42% FG, 37.7 % 3P)
PF Christian Braun (Jr., 6-6, 218 lbs, 9.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 38% FG, 34% 3P)
C David McCormack (Sr., 6-10, 250 lbs, 13.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 51.5% FG, 100% 3P)
*= for Arizona State
Joseph Yesufu (So., 6-0, 180 lbs)
K.J. Adams (Fr., 6-7, 225 lbs)
Mitch Lightfoot (Sr., 6-8, 225 lbs)
Bobby Pettiford (Fr., 6-1, 190 lbs)
Zach Clemence (Fr., 6-10, 225 lbs)
Jalen Coleman-Lands (Sr., 6-4, 190 lbs)
ROSTER MAKEUP AND SOME NUMBERS
After bowing out early of the NCAA Tournament last season, Bill Self was very critical of his program’s condition and mentioned that Kansas had to get a lot better in many areas, most notably referencing length across the roster. This issue wasn’t really addressed as KU is a fairly small team by the program’s normal standards, especially with the Jayhawks’ top rebounder, Jalen Wilson, sidelined because of a DUI suspension.
However, Kansas added eight transfers, and most prominently, high scoring guard Remy Martin from Arizona State, who should be one the Jayhawks‘ most dangerous players right away. The team also got a boost from Ochai Agbaji’s return, as he is clearly the emotional leader of this team with a lot of experience and the game to back it up. He is a dangerous outside shooter who can also attack the rim when guarded too closely. David McCormack was fairly raw throughout his career in Lawrence, but has steadily improved in recent years and now is clearly a force to be reckoned with in the paint. He is strong, agile, aggressive and can operate with his back to the basket, thus opening up space for the shooters on the outside. Self will go to him early and often to try and soften up an opposing defense or put the big men in foul trouble.
Kansas has quite a few ball handlers and numerous smaller combo guards on the roster that can all work some point guard duties and be aggressive against the ball on defense. Christian Braun, while struggling with his shot for longer periods, is a very good role player, an excellent rebounder for his size and someone who can impact a game by doing a lot of little things.
Statistically, Kansas was fairly average in numerous areas last season, partly explaining the Jayhawks’ finish at the end of the year. The team — that since has lost one of its leaders in premier defensive stalwart Marcus Garrett to graduation — didn’t score particularly well, at 72.5 points per game, shot just 43.3 percent from the field and only connected on 33.2 percent of its three pointers. The Jayhawks were a good rebounding team on the shoulders of Wilson, McCormack and a bevy of guards who go to the glass fairly well, especially Braun. Defensively Kansas also held up well, but over the course of the year as well, only allowing opponents to shoot 41 percent from the field, which was good for second in the Big 12 behind only Texas.
Self loves to run a weave offense at the top of the key, getting the defense to move laterally and then attacking the newly created gaps. The Jayhawks will certainly ram the ball into the post to McCormack, and while he can be a little erratic, he definitely has the skill and size to present a major problem for almost any team in America. On the perimeter the main guys should be Remy Martin, a typical diminutive but aggressive scoring guard with a chip on his shoulder, and Ochai Agbaji, a long, talented wing who is versatile and athletic enough to take over a game for longer periods of time. Defensively, especially with Wilson out, Kansas will most likely look to attack the passing lanes with its smaller guards and apply heavy pressure against ball handlers. Outside of McCormack, the Jayhawks do not have a tremendous amount of size or brawn inside, even though both Agbaji and Braun are capable of punching above their weight class.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Marcus Bingham Jr. versus David McCormack
McCormack should provide Bingham with an early test in which he can prove that he is capable of handling big, physical front-court players for extended minutes. McCormack will back Bingham down and present a challenge on the offensive boards, too, and it will be interesting to see if the Spartan can use his length to bother his stronger opponent. If McCormack does well, it could present additional problems for Michigan State, as he is one of the keys for Kansas to opening up its perimeter game.
Tyson Walker versus Remy Martin
Both did well at their previous schools, both were a bit off the national radar and both enter the upcoming season with high hopes — so naturally a lot of eyes will be on this fascinating point guard matchup. Walker is known as a strong defender and will have his hands full with the aggressive Martin everywhere on the court. Unlike in preseason, Walker should still look for his own offense here as well, as Martin isn’t a very good or very willing defender, something that needs to be tested early on. Otherwise, Walker would be smart to not get into a personal battle and rather keep to managing the team as a true floor general, something that he has as an advantage over Martin.
Joey Hauser versus Christian Braun
Due to Wilson’s suspension, Kansas will most likely be forced to operate with smaller lineups in this game. On the one hand, this likely gives Michigan State a potential mismatch to exploit, but on the other hand, offers certain challenges. Can MSU use its superior size at the four spot or will Kansas gain an advantage with the Jayhawks’ mobility and quickness? Whoever can actually dictate the lineups for his opponent might very well be a determining factor in the outcome of the game overall.
Kansas, as the No. 3-ranked team in the nation, enters this contest as the favorite, but not by as wide a margin as Michigan State’s lack of a ranking might indicate. Both teams have gone through quite a bit of a turnover (which school doesn’t in these transfer portal days?) and it will be interesting to see who can gain familiarity earlier with all the new faces out on the court. Both squads have something to prove after disappointing finishes last season, and with that comes a lot of added pressure a swell. Whichever team can manage these expectations better and find a rhythm earlier should have the upper hand in this matchup.