Why Kansas is the Team to Beat in March

By Tully Corcoran

If you saw the Big Monday game this week, you know you saw an idyllic college basketball battle, an ode to the genre between No. 1 Kansas and also-No. 1 Oklahoma. It lasted three overtimes, and for 55 minutes was played with astonishing levels of effort and precision. Magic Johnson said it was one of the best college basketball games he’d ever seen.

You know what you saw.

You know that, by the second overtime, you knew these were the only two teams in the country that could have pushed each other to this level, absorbed this many blows, gotten up again this many times. It could be the greatest game in the history of either program, and remember: These two programs were once tied 50-50 at halftime of a national championship game.

Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield scored 46 points, but Kansas won anyway. And that’s how we know Kansas is the team to beat in March this year.

A handy guide to the No. 1 Jayhawks:

Best Player

This is unclear, but Kansas’ leader and most complete player is Frank Mason, a 5-foot-11 junior point guard who was originally committed to Towson. Mason has the sort of game and demeanor that cause people to liken him to various breeds of aggressive dogs. He seems like he would have made a great boxer.

Mason isn’t Kansas’ leading scorer or best shooter, but he averages 13 points, six assists and four rebounds, and is the man who held Hield to 46. He also has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 4:1.

He is the team’s defining personality, and joins Perry Ellis as the only two Jayhawks whose loss would be catastrophic.

There is a rap song about him that has spawned a saying: “Bitch I’m Frank Mason.”


Playing Style

On offense, Kansas is post-oriented but extremely quick, and eager to make the extra pass, with 3-point shooters everywhere. Defensively, the Jayhawks play disruptive man-to-man defense with situational zones, and a full-court press that is stored in a red box that reads, “In Emergency, Break Glass.”

Is There Lots of Dunking?

Troublingly, not as much as you might think. Ellis has never been much of a dunker, and Lucas and Mickelson are not among the more explosive players Kansas has ever started at the 5. Selden is a theoretically great dunker, but on that front has a tendency to bite off a little more than he can chew. And Mason and Graham are little guys.

The real dunking potential is stored within freshmen Carlton Bragg and Chieck Diallo, but minutes are getting harder to come by.

They Can Stroke It

Kansas is the best 3-point shooting team in the country, shooting 46.3 percent, and making an average of nine 3s per game. KU has two small forwards (Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene) who shoot better than 54 percent from the 3-point line, and not because they’re super selective.

But it goes deeper than that, in more ways than one. Nobody in Kansas’ perimeter rotation shoots worse than 36 percent from the arc. And then there’s the power forward, Ellis, who has made 11 of 21 3-point attempts this year. Most of the time, Kansas has four players on the floor who have to be defended out to 22 feet.

What about Defense?

Self in recent years has had a lot of success with defenses anchored by traditional, rim-protecting centers. From Cole Aldrich to Jeff Withey to Joel Embiid, it has kind of become KU’s thing.

The Jayhawks don’t have any players that talented at the 5 this year, but they do have two really long centers (6-10 Landen Lucas, 6-10 Hunter Mickelson) and three really bouncy power forwards (Jamari Traylor, Chieck Diallo, Carlton Bragg). The Jayhawks block and alter a lot of shots, regardless of lineup. The effect is that it’s difficult to ever truly get the Jayhawks into foul trouble, at least from a defensive perspective. They have two of everything.

On the perimeter, Mason and Graham are on the small side, but they’re pests who get a lot of steals. Selden’s defense has been criticised throughout his career, but not much this year.

KU’s opponents are shooting 39 percent, which ranks 51st in the nation.

Perry Ellis is Still Around?

Although the Jayhawks are great 3-point shooters, they orient themselves around an extremely reliable senior post scorer, Ellis, who functions like a football team’s running game, and comes dressed in bespoke flat-front slacks.

Yes, Ellis does sometimes struggle to score inside against length, and, yes, you saw some of that against Oklahoma. But he still came up with 27 and 13, so, like pizza and Tim Duncan, even when Ellis is bad, he’s still pretty good. What distinguishes Ellis as a scorer is that he’s a power forward with range out to the 3-point line, but is equally capable of driving to score or pass. His versatility beautifully complements KU’s fast-paced, extra-pass style and 3-point shooting. You could call it the Draymond Green effect, if you were into comparing the offensive skill packages of college players to those of NBA players for the purpose of illustrating a point about playing style.

But March is All About Guard Play

Look at it like this:

The most criticized player on Kansas’ roster is swingman Wayne Selden, who sometimes gets accused of laziness and underachievement. Well, Wayne Selden averages 16 points, four rebounds and three assists, and shoots 55 percent from the field and 54 percent from the 3-point line.

That’s the guy people complain about.

Mason, Selden and Devonte’ Graham make up the best backcourt in the country and Kansas’ best since Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush in 2008. Self has always yearned for a backcourt like this — two authentic combo guards who can run the team but also fill it up — but hasn’t had one quite this balanced since Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head at Illinois in 2003.

Kansas has the No. 2 offense in Division I (behind the Citadel), and it’s because it has the best backcourt play in Division I.

What Could Doom the Jayhawks

A team with a tall, laterally quick big man.

In other words, someone for whom Ellis is not a matchup problem. After Ellis, Kansas simply doesn’t have a reliable scoring option in the frontcourt. The Jayhawks can piecemeal it together for a few minutes at a time with a jumper from Mickelson here, a putback from Jamari Traylor there, maybe a couple free throws from Lucas. But if Ellis can be taken off his game for 40 minutes by a superior defender, the Jayhawks could get sucked into a game they don’t want to play.

As well as Kansas shoots it from the outside, it ranks 188th in 3-point attempts. It is still very much a post-oriented team, but it is a post-oriented team that doesn’t have as much firepower as it usually does on the block.

Kansas doesn’t have much in the way of star power. It might not have a 2016 first-round NBA draft pick on its entire roster. But it also doesn’t have any holes. Name a situation — the Jayhawks have a lineup for that.

No team in the country is as well-equipped for the NCAA Tournament, and as Buddy Hield and Oklahoma found out, the game of your life might not be enough.