By Rustin Dodd
On Saturday night at the Sprint Center, No. 1 seed Kansas will face No. 2 seed Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament championship game. It will be the second time in four seasons that the in-state rivals will meet for the conference tournament title — and this one may mean a little more.
They shared the regular crown, turning tonight’s title tilt into a de facto tie-breaker. Here are three things to watch at the Sprint Center.
1. KU’s bench production. Last season, Kansas advanced to the NCAA championship game with a bench that basically amounted to senior guard Conner Teahan and juco transfer forward Kevin Young. The Jayhawks’ reserves played just slightly more than 20 percent of the minutes in six NCAA Tournament games — and just 30.3 minutes per game from the Elite Eight on.
It didn’t matter much.
Depth can be a non-factor in March. Television timeouts are a little longer. Starters play major minutes. And for most of February, it looked as if Kansas would have to follow the same model this season. Sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe and freshman forward Perry Ellis — generally the first two players off KU’s bench — have been inconsistent this year. And freshmen Jamari Traylor, Andrew White III and Rio Adams all need more seasoning.
But in two victories in the Big 12 Tournament, the Jayhawks have tapped into some unforeseen production from the KU reserves. Freshman Perry Ellis had a career-high 23 points in Friday night’s semifinal victory over Iowa State, and the KU bench finished with 37 points. That would have been a season high — if not for the 39 bench points in Thursday’s blowout victory over Texas Tech.
For perspective: In KU’s final six games of the regular season, the bench had averaged just 14 points per game. The bench explosion against Texas Tech was a little misleading — Rio Adams went on a tear in the final minutes, and of course, it was Texas Tech. But if some combo of Ellis, Tharpe and Traylor can give KU productive minutes, it could widen the Jayhawks’ margin for error in March.
2. K-State’s three-point shooting. Kansas State took aim from deep in a 59-55 loss to Kansas at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 22. The Wildcats hit just nine of 30 from three-point range, and K-State coach Bruce Weber was questioned about the strategy after the game.
In the rematch in Lawrence, the Wildcats shifted gears, attempting just 19 three-pointers (they hit eight) and attacking the Jayhawks inside. That didn’t work, either. KU center Jeff Withey finished with five blocks (he had zero in the first game), and the Jayhawks limited K-State to just 12 of 31 shooting from two-point range. Will K-State revert to the three-point plan in the third matchup?
3. Can K-State keep KU off the boards? The Jayhawks dominated the offensive glass in the second game in Lawrence, outrebounding K-State 40-23. The Jayhawks nearly had as many offensive rebounds (14) as K-State had defensive (17), and KU turned those extra possessions into 19 second-chance points.
The rebounding advantage wasn’t as stark in Manhattan (KU outrebounded K-State 35-28), but K-State’s Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson will have to find a way to keep the Jayhawks off the boards. If KU senior forward Kevin Young isn’t 100 percent — he suffered a lower-leg injury in Friday’s win over Iowa State — that may help K-State close the gap.