Here we are, No. 16 Kansas matching up with No. 21 San Diego State in the final game of the Jayhawks’ nonconference slate. For the sixth straight game, KU is facing a team ranked in the top 70 of KenPom.com’s rankings. (The lowest ranked opponent during that stretch was Toledo, which is currently 69th, according to KenPom.)
San Diego State, meanwhile, is ranked 22nd overall, with much of that number based on the Aztecs’ defensive efficiency (13th nationally). Kansas has won three straight and holds a 77 percent chance of winning, according to KenPom.com. Here are five story lines that could factor into the outcome.
•1. Kansas’ inside offense vs. the Aztecs’ defense:
San Diego State is long, athletic and dedicated to winning games on the defensive end. Coach Steve Fisher starts four players taller than 6 feet 7, and the length allows them to stop teams from scoring inside. San Diego State is holding opponents to 38.8 percent shooting on two-point field goals, the second-best mark in the country.
Kansas, of course, just happens to be one of the nation’s best at converting two-point attempts, making 57.5 percent of them. If San Diego State wants to have a chance at an upset, they must disrupt Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis’ usual efficiency inside.
•2. Xavier Thames’ three-point shooting:
If you want to buy stock in San Diego State’s 11-1 start, which includes a victory over Creighton, you probably want to assume senior guard Xavier Thames can continue his scorching outside shooting. Thames takes 43 percent of his field-goal attempts from behind the three-point line — and he makes 47 percent of them. Based on San Diego State’s starting lineup, it seems likely that Naadir Tharpe could start on Thames. But if given the option, it might be interesting to see if one of KU’s longer guards (maybe Wayne Selden) could disrupt Thames.
•3. The Aztecs’ offense:
On the whole, San Diego State’s offense ranks 63rd nationally in efficiency. But other than Thames, they are not necessarily a dangerous offensive team. They can, however, get to the free throw line. Nearly 25 percent of their points come from the line, which ranks 69th in the country.
•4. Shepard returns to Lawrence:
San Diego State sophomore forward Winston Shepard was once AAU teammates with former UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad — and the duo once played in a tournament in Lawrence. If Thames is not scoring, Shepard is the Aztecs’ second-best offensive option. He’s scoring 13.3 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the floor. But he does much of his damage at the free throw line, averaging seven free-throw attempts per game.
•5. Can KU continue its improved outside shooting? San Diego State’s two-point defense (No. 2 in the country) is a lot better than its three-point defense (111th). Opponents shoot 32 percent from the three-point line, and perhaps that bodes well for KU. After some horrendous outside shooting earlier this season, the Jayhawks are shooting 40 percent from three (17 of 42) during a three-game winning streak. One reason: Junior guard Naadir Tharpe has hit seven of 12 from three-point range during the last three games. To reach its ceiling, Kansas needs to keep knocking down threes at a healthy clip.