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Texas Longhorns Basketball: Kansas Jayhawks Preview

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The Jayhawks are coming to town this Saturday. The game starts at 1 PM CST, and airs on CBS.

Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre started off the season slowly, but has been balling for the last month.
Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre started off the season slowly, but has been balling for the last month.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

You can be excused, Texas fans, for seeing the 2015 Big 12 basketball season as a merciless trek, but can take solace in the fact that every team has to survive the same ugly journey.

Is the Big 12 the greatest conference in the history of basketball? Well, no, it isn't. But it might be the best conference in D-I hoops that we have seen in quite some time, and at least by one measure it is. According to Ken Pomeroy's conference ratings, which average the adjusted ratings of every team in a league to come up with a number, the 2015 Big 12 is currently the highest rated conference college basketball has seen since the 2004 ACC. This may not hold for the rest of the season -- only a small margin separates this year's Big 12 from the 2011 Big Ten -- but the fact remains that the Big 12 is pretty damn good.

Which means it is pretty damn hard to find wins in this league.

In any other year, we might expect the Kansas Jayhawks to play the role of Mr. Pink (*), watching dispassionately as the rest of the league slaughters each other in a Mexican standoff. This still may yet happen -- a Kansas win on the road against Texas would give Bill Self's team an early edge in the league championship race -- but this may be a year where KU has to compete hard for its league title, and cannot pull away so easily.

(*The video in the link is NSFW, with lots of foul language, violence, and more blood on the floor than an 18th century slaughterhouse.)

Don't get me wrong; Kansas is still outstanding. Kansas can absolutely beat Texas in Austin on Saturday afternoon. But the Longhorns should like their odds.

A look at the two freshman stars

In most years, Bill Self has the luxury of blending upper classmen with one or two highly regarded freshmen. But for the last two seasons, the situation has been different. A year ago, Self won the Big 12 with a young squad that counted four freshmen and two sophomores among its top seven players in terms of minutes played. Working in Kansas' favor is that one of those freshman was a dominating 7-0 center, while the other was perhaps the most gifted basketball player of his generation.

This season, Self again works with a young roster, but this time the two key freshmen are Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander. Both Oubre and Alexander are outstanding basketball players, but let's just say that the shoes they are trying to fill are unfairly large.

A lot of time was spent trying to explain what was wrong with Oubre at the start of this season, but the simple fact was he just wasn't getting onto the floor very much. He didn't play more than 20 minutes in a single game prior to December 20th, when he finally broke through the double digit scoring mark to put up 23 points. Since that game, Oubre has figured heavily into Kansas' attack, playing heavy minutes and putting up nice scoring numbers.

Oubre is an athletic wing, but for all of his athleticism he doesn't get to the rim very much, particularly outside of transition situations. Saying this doesn't mean I think there is anything wrong with Oubre; it is just a consequence of how Kansas' offense is built. Athletic wings often have a hard time getting to the rack in the Jayhawk offense, which generally crowds the lane with post players. Thankfully, Oubre can shoot -- he has hit 42 percent of his threes this year and has been effective as a spot up shooter.

Cliff Alexander is the other highly regarded freshman on this squad. He is an exceptionally physical 6-8 post player who is relentless on the glass and will look to seal his defender deep in the paint to create chances to score. He also projects something of a presence defensively, although the Kansas defense really misses the defensive dimension that Joel Embiid and Jeff Withey provided for the previous three seasons. This is possibly the worst defensive squad Bill Self has coached in more than a decade, and the lack of a great rim protecting center may be the biggest reason why.

The sophomore guards

While Oubre and Alexander are probably better known, and Perry Ellis came into the season expected to be the most important Jayhawk, Frank Mason has so far been Kansas' best player. Mason is dynamic in transition and is an excellent shooter, both from three point range and at the foul line.

Mason's backcourt partner is fellow sophomore Wayne Selden. Selden had a nice freshman season, and after contemplating his future decided to return to Kansas. He was reported at the time to be considered a fringe first round draft pick, but this season he has played himself (so far) out of the first round. I don't want to be too mean here, but for the most part Selden has just been bad this season.

I am frankly not sure what is wrong with Selden. It is hard to understand how a player who as a freshman finished on nearly 69 percent of his layups and dunks follows up with a sophomore campaign where so far he is only connecting on 40 percent of his shots at the rim. Even stranger is that Selden played much of last season with a knee injury, and after an off-season surgery was supposed to be healthier this year. Did the surgery not go well? What is going on?

Selden can still shoot the ball, so even if he is having trouble finishing around the rim he can still be a menace from long range.

Another sophomore perimeter player to keep your eye on is 6-7 Brannen Greene. Greene is a shooting specialist, who along with Oubre has taken minutes away from freshman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in the last few weeks.

Ellis and Traylor

Coming into the season, I would have probably pegged Perry Ellis as the most likely Big 12 player of the year, and someone with a decent chance at being an All-American. Now I am not so sure.

After a strong sophomore season, Ellis is struggling to score efficiently this year. A season ago, Ellis connected on 55 percent of his two point attempts, while this season he has made only 44 percent of his chances from inside the arc. His at rim shooting percentage has fallen from 65 percent last season to 55 percent this year. His two point jump shooting percentage is down from a very good 42 percent a year ago to a more or less average 36 percent this season.

As Jesse Newell of the Topeka Capital-Journal recently pointed out, Perry Ellis is getting his shots blocked a lot this year. (Full disclosure: I helped Jesse with a little bit of data, but the idea was all his.) Jesse was sort of at a loss as to why this is happening, although he did speculate this:

I do think he is affected by not having Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins on the court to take away some defensive attention.

There also have been times when he hasn't been helped as much as he could by teammates.

Ellis' struggles highlight why it is hard to predict things in the world of college basketball. It is hard to predict problems of the sort that Ellis has had so far this season. And now that we have noticed them, they may very well vanish; we will forget them quickly if they do.

Ellis spends some of the time teamed up with Alexander, and some with Jamari Traylor. Traylor, a 6-8 junior, basically is what he is: an energy guy who won't take many shots, but goes to the glass and plays defense.

Landon Lucas may also rotate through the front line. Hunter Mickelson, a 6-10 transfer from Arkansas, appears to be the odd man out, rarely playing. I sort of expected Mickelson to play more, as he would give an undersized Kansas defense a dimension that it could probably use in front of the rim, but I guess his offensive limitations are substantial enough to keep him off the floor.

So what is going to happen?

Like I said, predictions are hard in the world of college hoops. Athletic performance, by its very nature, is variable. And things just seem extra crazy when it comes to 20-year-olds trying to throw a ball through a hoop.

One of the things that has stood out to me so far this season is just how small Kansas seems this year. Here, I mean small by Kansas standards -- we have grown accustomed to Kansas being bigger and badder inside than anyone, but this team doesn't play like that. The Texas front line will have a distinct size advantage over the Jayhawks, and this is a game where it seems unlikely that Ellis and Selden will finally rediscover their abilities to score at the rim.

But Kansas has a tremendous equalizer to match Texas' size advantage -- the ability to shoot. While the Jayhawks are struggling to score inside, they have connected on 40 percent of their threes so far this year. Like most Bill Self teams, they don't shoot threes very often (they should probably take more), but when they do they hit them. A hot first half from three allowed Kansas to run off to a big lead at home against Oklahoma on Monday. (The Jayhawks eventually let that lead disapear, but managed to hang on and win a close game down the stretch.)

So I think this game may very well come down to how many perimeter shots Kansas can hit. If Oubre, Selden, Mason, and Greene come out burying threes, Kansas is fully capable of pulling away from Texas. But if the Jayhawks have to rely on their big men to score for them, they will likely have a tough time against the heart of the Longhorn defense.

It is strange, that previous paragraph. This is Kansas, right?