Scouting Kansas: Huskies excited, but height will factor in

NU will need to exploit KU’s perimeter defense


Phil Roeder, Creative Commons

Kansas practices as the No. 1 seed in 2016. Kansas was a No. 1 seed for three straight years leading up to this year’s No. 4 seed, and has made the tournament every year except one since it went to 64 teams.

Northeastern discovered Sunday that its first-round NCAA Tournament opponent will be one of college basketball’s blue bloods: Kansas.

Before any of the bracket was unveiled, Northeastern knew it would be a double-digit seed and an underdog in its opening game. But in addition to being a good basketball team, Kansas hoops is a national brand with its own mystique that adds to the surreal nature of this Northeastern team heading to the big dance.

“Just watching as a kid growing up, I’ve always loved the way they play,” NU senior center Anthony Green said of Kansas. “They play big, play fast, they’ve always won their conference. What can you expect — it’s Kansas basketball.”

Bolden Brace, the junior guard who plays at a relentless pace, said “I think we wanted Kansas.”

But the Jayhawks team Northeastern will meet in Salt Lake City is not the same team America has come to expect to see every March. For the first time since 2003, they didn’t get a top-three seed in the tournament. They’re without two top players, Udoka Azubuike and LaGerald Vick, due to an injury and  personal leave of absence, respectively.

The Jayhawks aren’t at their best, and the Huskies can sense it. After the ‘hawks lost their penultimate regular season game at Oklahoma and lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 final, some Northeastern players were eyeing KU as an enticing matchup.

“The Kansas game was streamed in Serbia, the Kansas game [March 16] with Iowa State,” Serbian senior guard Vasa Pusica said. “They thought it would be a great matchup for us. My friend texted me this morning and he said ‘I want you guys to get picked against Kansas. They’re not playing great basketball.’ They had a tough loss. I want to play Kansas. I’m really excited.”

The biggest potential issue for NU is Kansas’ size. Though the 7’ Azubuike is out, the Jayhawks’ regular rotation includes four players at 6’5”, one at 6’9” and one at 6’10”. Green highlights Northeastern’s height at 6’10”, but his backup Tomas Murphy is 6’8” and NU guards are on average shorter than their Kansan counterparts.

Northeastern’s best chance of winning is by relying on their outside shooting rather than trying to beat Kansas’ height inside. The Huskies shoot at a .388 clip from beyond the arc, better than Kansas’ .350 percentage with more than 100 more attempts. They average 9.8 made threes a game while Kansas averages 7.2.

Northeastern can also rely on free-throw shooting down the stretch. The Huskies shoot .751 from the stripe, with their best takers being junior guard Jordan Roland (.903 on 72 attempts) and Pusica (.843 on 127 attempts). Kansas’ best foul shooter is Dedric Lawson (.804 on 194 attempts) and they only shoot .697 from the line as a team. NU has three players with a higher percentage from the line than Lawson (Roland, Pusica and Donnell Gresham Jr.), and they will likely look to feed the ball to those players if they get into the bonus.

Lawson will be a problem for the Huskies in general as KU’s best active player. He averages more than 19 points per game and as a forward shoots over 80 percent from the free-throw line. He also grabs more than 10 boards per game. If the Huskies aren’t careful, Lawson could take over the game himself.

If NU is able to really get it going from distance — if Pusica, Roland and Brace are all clicking — that could open things up for Green and even Murphy to get to the rim as Kansas would have to try to clamp down on the perimeter. Green said he’s excited for the task of spearheading NU’s frontcourt.

“I always love a challenge,” Green said. “Something to prove.”

Head coach Bill Coen emphasized that it will take a well-rounded game to overcome Kansas’ size, not just strong play from the guards or Green.

“Certainly you need some size up front that can match up so you don’t get dominated on the glass,” Coen said. “You need elite point guard play, and you need to be able to make shots. We’ve got some size on the wing, we have some defense on the wing, and I think we have those elements.”

While the Huskies often have a coaching advantage in CAA matchups, Coen will meet Hall of Famer Bill Self patrolling Kansas’ sideline. The matchup will pit one of the best mid-major coaches against one of the best coaches in college hoops, period.

Green reminded that there’s always a sleeper team in this tournament and said he likes going “under the radar.”

“What can you expect — it’s Kansas basketball,” Green said. “But we’re going to show them what Northeastern basketball is about.”