LAWRENCE — Every Monday, The Star delves into Kansas basketball — and the week ahead. Here’s the ninth installment of the weekly feature.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
1. Can Kansas exploit Baylor’s defense? The Bears rank 80th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Last season, the Bears finished the season ranked 40th in the same category. One reason for the slide: The Bears are not nearly as long as they were last season, with long and skilled frontcourt players Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy leaving for the NBA. This year, Baylor starts three guards — Pierre Jackson, A.J. Walton and Brady Heslip — under 6 feet 2.
Kansas, ranked 12th in offensive efficiency, will be the best offense Baylor has faced since falling 94-87 to Gonzaga (ranked fifth) on Dec. 28 — the Bears’ fourth loss of the season. Baylor allowed 6-foot-2 guard Kevin Pangos to go for 31 points, and the Bulldogs shot better than 52 percent from the field. Baylor hung in the game, mostly by taking advantage of Gonzaga’s equally suspect defense. Gonzaga ranks 74th in defensive efficiency; Kansas ranks 11th.
2. The Allen Effect. Kansas is 9-0 all-time against Baylor in Lawrence — and the Jayhawks are working on another lengthy home-court winning streak after surviving against Iowa State in overtime last week. The victory over Iowa State pushed the streak to 31 games, the sixth-best in school history. It’s been mentioned often, but when you couple the current streak and KU’s 69-game home-court winning streak from 2007-11, the Jayhawks have won 100 out of 101 at Allen Fieldhouse.
3. Examining Elijah Johnson. The last time Kansas senior Elijah Johnson was matched up with a highly-touted point guard, he finished with 13 points, two assists and four turnovers against Aaron Craft and Ohio State. Craft had just seven points and three assists on three-of-nine shooting.
Johnson, though, soon hit a rough patch; he’s recorded 23 assists and 15 turnovers in KU’s last three games. (He's still creating for teammates, but his turnovers have been costly.) On Monday night, Johnson will face Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, the preseason pick for Big 12 player of the year. Kansas will need Johnson to be at his best.
4. Withey vs. Jackson. The Johnson-Jackson matchup could be pivotal. But here’s another matchup to watch: Jackson versus Kansas center Jeff Withey. If the vote for Big 12 player of the year was held today, Jackson and Withey may finish one-two, in some order. Withey downplayed the significance on Saturday after KU's victory against Texas Tech.
“He doesn’t play my position, so I can’t guard him,” Withey said. “He can’t guard me. It’s all about our team.”
This is true … sort of. But Jackson thrives on penetration and drawing fouls — more than 25 percent of his points come from the free-throw line. Will he still be able to attack the middle with Withey protecting the rim?
5. Can KU’s bench step up? Last season, Kansas had to make do with a depleted roster. The Jayhawks went just six deep on some nights, with then-junior Kevin Young playing 11 minutes per game as KU’s seventh man. The formula worked fine in March, but it wasn’t exactly ideal at times during the regular season.
This season, it appeared that problem would be solved. But as KU enters the grind of conference play, the bench is still a question mark. Sophomore Naadir Tharpe and freshmen forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor have been solid at times, but KU’s reserve unit has been mostly quiet in January, averaging just 10.3 points per game. The scoring may not be a primary need, but the Jayhawks could certainly use a more consistent bench during the stretch run.