Kansas was prepared either way
National player of the year favorite Blake Griffin of Oklahoma won't play Monday night, but Kansas coach Bill Self didn't know that as he prepared for his team's Big Monday showdown with the No. 3 Sooners (ESPN, 9 ET).So Self readied two game plans while awaiting word on Griffin's status, which wasn't released until Monday afternoon. He prepared one defense for stopping Griffin and another for slowing down brilliant freshman guard Willie Warren. Griffin will not play while he recovers from a concussion he suffered Saturday at Texas.
During this time of the basketball season, there is no rest for the weary. Right after KU beat Nebraska on Saturday, members of the Jayhawks' coaching staff convened in their offices at Allen Fieldhouse to prepare for the first-place showdown with Oklahoma. Self assigns one of his three coaches to each of Kansas' league opponents, so assistant coach Kurt Townsend has been paying close attention to the Sooners all season. He's done so with an eye toward Monday's game, which will break the current tie atop the Big 12 standings. (Both teams are 11-1.)
After the plane landed, it was on to the Lloyd Noble Center for some light shooting to get accustomed to the arena and its surroundings. (Unlike coach Norman Dale in "Hoosiers," Self didn't have to explain to the Jayhawks that the baskets were 10 feet high like in their gym back in Lawrence.) Once the team checked into its hotel, the players and coaches ate a team meal and held another film session before bedtime.
Game day was expected to entail more of the same. A team breakfast typically is followed by an hourlong shootaround as well as another quick walk-through of the Sooners' plays and the Kansas players' offensive and defensive assignments. All this might seem like overkill, but just getting the players up and moving and not sitting around the hotel is a good thing.
By this part of the season, even new players understand the nomenclature of basketball scouting. "Blitz traps" and "fly switches" become second nature and are shorthand for the coach's strategies. Townsend was to review Oklahoma one last time with input from the head coach and to make sure everyone understood his assignment at the shootaround.
Good teams such as Kansas stay focused on the scouting report, especially when it has information on the individual each player will guard. All players have tendencies, such as dribbling with their dominant hand, and picking up on a few of those tendencies can make a defender's job easier.
The afternoon before a game usually involves study hall and catching up on academic assignments that are due when the players return to class on Tuesday.
The Sooners are expected to arrive at the arena about 90 minutes before the game Monday night. By that time, as they say in Big 12 country, "the hay will be in the barn." The preparation is over, and it's time to go play the game.
So what about that game? Here are some keys to the Big Monday showdown:
1. With Griffin out, will Warren be able to step up?
Whether Warren can fill Griffin's shoes will supersede everything else in this contest. Griffin is one of the most dominant players in college basketball, and his absence changes the strategy for both teams.
Oklahoma proved it could play well without him in the second half against Texas, as it overcame a 12-point deficit and nearly won the game. Because the Sooners once again will play without Griffin, their offensive focus will shift to the perimeter against Kansas. Warren already has proven this season that he is capable of being the Sooners' go-to guy. He was sensational in the clutch on Saturday night, scoring 17 dramatic points after halftime. Austin Johnson and Tony Crocker will have to share the scoring burden as well, and both have been solid marksmen this season for coach Jeff Capel.
Kansas freshman guard Tyshawn Taylor likely will have the assignment of defending Warren, and although Taylor is not quite Mario Chalmers, he's a solid defender with length who is capable of bothering Warren. Sherron Collins has a chance to disrupt the Sooners' offense with his pressure, but few in the Big 12 have been better than Johnson at taking care of the basketball.
2. Can Collins take over?
At the end of Collins' freshman season, Self told me that he might have been the Jayhawks' best player. On a team with five future NBA players, that was an impressive statement. So, after battling injuries and playing with a star-studded cast that won the national championship last year, it is no surprise that this young Kansas team has become his group.
If Capel chooses to play man-to-man defense, as he's likely to do, his team's big men will have to defend Collins in Kansas' ball-screening offense. They'll have to try to keep him in front of Taylor Griffin, Juan Pattillo and Ryan Wright and make him play east to west rather than north to south toward the basket.
If you give Collins space to take away his drive, he is more than capable of making 3-point shots all night. And the Sooners must be sure to contain him in transition, as well, because he is a fire hydrant with a jet engine.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Oklahoma employing some zone defense Monday night, even though Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Collins are capable outside shooters. Capel is likely to live with jump shooting as opposed to Collins' exploiting the paint area with his penetration.
3. Will Aldrich or Pattillo be the X factor?
Much has been made of the improvement of KU sophomore Cole Aldrich. He has become what might just be the country's second-best defensive center behind UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, and when he does enter the NBA draft, he'll likely be a lottery selection. He is averaging almost three blocks per game this season and is an excellent defensive rebounder.
If Griffin were healthy, these would've been the questions: Can Aldrich make him shoot over him? Can he smother him in double-teams without fouling? Will he be able to alter the other Sooners' shots around the rim? Can he put pressure on the OU defense inside and potentially get the Griffin brothers in foul trouble?
Even though Oklahoma's all-world player is out, Aldrich has a great opportunity to showcase himself again. There is a dearth of quality big men in the Big 12 this season, so going up against a physical Oklahoma front line, with or without Griffin, will be a nice challenge for the sophomore.
Pattillo, the junior college transfer who had thought about redshirting until deciding to play on Jan. 12 against Texas, has proven to be one of the most athletic and versatile post players in the conference and has given Capel's thin bench a huge lift. He can play all three frontcourt positions and is a particularly good offensive rebounder. His 15 minutes a game have come in very handy in Big 12 play.
With Griffin sitting out, Pattillo could play a critical role in this game. A big game out of him and Taylor Griffin up front -- coupled with some timely perimeter shooting -- could be enough for OU to beat Kansas, even without its star player. Remember, Griffin did not play at all in two games last season due to knee injuries, but Capel's team won both of them.
Don't count out the Sooners at home under any circumstances.
Fran Fraschilla, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.
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