Tonight, the Kansas Jayhawks begin one of the most difficult and sadistic schedules college basketball will see all season long. Over the next seven days Kansas will visit #8 Iowa State (tonight, 9pm, ESPN), and host #9 Oklahoma State (Saturday) and #12 Baylor (Monday) in the kind of three game stretch only a disgruntled Missouri fan could have designed for KU.
I’ve seen and heard a lot of complaining from Jayhawks fans regarding the upcoming schedule, and I fully understand why folks are irritated. Our Jayhawks are young and inexperienced, they’ve already played the top ranked schedule in men’s hoops; and KU is already sitting on four losses – a rare total for January in Lawrence. So, to top it off, do we really need a psychotic early schedule in Big XII play? I would argue that this schedule is precisely what we need. I’ll explain.
Our Jayhawks sit at 11-4, 2-0 in conference play. But what do we really know for sure about our team? The schedule, to this point, has been a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of quality college basketball teams; Duke, Florida, Villanova, New Mexico, Georgetown. But what, if anything, can we really hang our hats on?
Wiggins is iffy, inconsistent at times. Ellis has disappeared for 10-12 minute clips. Embiid can be downright dominant; but then he gets into foul trouble. Selden has been great for the bulk of the season, and Naadir Tharpe may be our best decision maker; which makes me smile and shutter simultaneously.
The bench – mainly Jamari Traylor and Tarik Black – both work their tails off on the glass, and defend like madmen. A few fleeting flashes of, I don’t know – something – from kids like Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene has been nice, but neither plays enough to put me at ease when they enter the game. And what on Earth has happened to Frank Mason the last few games?? I wonder.
All that said, yet I find myself looking forward to tonight’s game at Iowa State with a giddy excitement usually reserved for small children on Christmas morning. Much like those kids, I know I’m going to find something; I’m just not sure what. Will I like what Kansas gives me tonight? Will I get what I want? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
Like any serious KU fan, I know just how diabolical Hilton Coliseum (below) can be. The Iowa State Cyclones home arena is so obnoxiously loud that TV cameras have been known to shake. Their fans, like all others in the Big XII, hate Kansas with a passion; which makes me respect them even more.
Historically, it hasn’t mattered whether or not ISU even has a good team; Kansas’ trips into Ames are always a knock down, drag out fight. The fact that this group of Cyclones is very good (14-1, 2-1 Big XII) only makes tonight more interesting to me. Kansas is young, but Iowa State is a veteran group with a world of skill – so the young Jayhawks will have some growing up to do before this one gets underway.
With four players averaging over 12 points per game, the Cyclones have myriad options when it comes to scoring. Coach Fred Hoiberg’s group likes to spread you out, and they’ll shoot three-pointers from everywhere on the floor.
With superstar guard DeAndre Kane’s (leg injury) status still in question for tonight’s game, the focus will really be on forwards Melvin Ejim (#3) and Georges Niang (#31). Ejim is scoring 18 per game, to go with 7 boards. How he matches up with Perry Ellis should be crucial in deciding the outcome of this game.
From the Kansas perspective, Niang is the real problem child. Niang stands at 6’7″, and while he is effective on the interior, his ability to shoot from long distance makes him a real issue for KU from a matchup standpoint. Will Kansas Coach, Bill Self, put Joel Embiid on Niang – and see Embiid’s shot blocking prowess drawn away from the rim? Or does he put the lanky Wiggins on Niang and risk seeing Wiggins get pushed around on the block by the stronger Cyclone?
Wiggins (above) will be the most talented ‘slasher’ on the court tonight. When the Jayhawk freshman puts the ball on the deck and heads to the rim, he’s been virtually unstoppable. The question is: will he assert himself tonight? He’s going to be a major key for KU in Ames, but he often seems too willing to pass up opportunities to be aggressive. Wiggins needs to put the pedal to the medal tonight. Not to show the country how talented he is, but because his teammates are going to need him to help open up the floor for them.
Wiggins, Niang, Ejim, blah blah blah. The key tonight is Kansas center, Joel Embiid. The seven-foot freshman is averaging 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. The comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon are not without merit; as Embiid can move and play with a speed and agility that belies his size. With no Iowa State player to match his size, Embiid (#21) is going to need to stay out of foul trouble and play his game. Nothing crazy. A solid game (18 points, 10 boards, 3 blocks) out of Embiid, and the flight back to Lawrence should be a happy one.
No matter what happens tonight, or the next week, Kansas fans are going to learn a lot about their Jayhawks. Three top-12 teams in one week is more than any team should have to bear, but come March, it will all be worth it. For, when other fan bases are wondering what kind of team they have heading into The Big Dance, we Kansas fans will know for certain.
Rock Chalk Jayhawk