The biggest question for Kansas fans heading into the Final Four isn’t going to be whether or not Tyshawn Taylor can hold on to the ball against Aaron Craft, or which Elijah Johnson shows up, or even how Thomas Robinson is going to fare against a post player just as strong as he is.
No, the biggest concern should be how they are going to contain Deshaun Thomas.
Thomas truly is a gifted scorer. A 6-foot-7 left-hander, Thomas is a threat anywhere he has the ball on the floor. He can hit a three, he can beat you off the bounce and he can score with his back to the basket. As good as he was all season long, Thomas is currently playing his best basketball of the season. Over his last 12 games, Thomas is averaging 20.2 ppg and 7.7 rpg while shooting 54.1% from the floor and 41.8% (23-for-55, more than 4.5 attempts per game) from three. Those numbers increase to 22.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg in four NCAA tournament games.
The problem with Thomas on the floor is that Kansas, when they trot out their best lineup, have a true center in Jeff Withey and a college center in Thomas Robinson on the floor. There is no chance that Withey is going to be able to defend Thomas on the perimeter. Not only would he be completely unable to matchup with him defensively, but Withey also happens to be a perfect defender to put on Jared Sullinger thanks to his length and his ability to block shots.
But if Withey is going to be guarding Sullinger, that means that Robinson will be forced to matchup one-on-one with Thomas. Purdue’s Robbie Hummel is a different player than Thomas, but they are similar enough that we can confidently say Hummel’s 22 point first half against the Jayhawks — when he was being defended by Robinson — in the Round of 32 is an indicator that putting Robinson on Thomas may not be an ideal situation.
If he doesn’t want to try and defend Ohio State that way, Kansas head coach Bill Self does have a couple of options, neither of which are ideal.
The first is that he sits Withey, which is what happened in similar situations in the past for the Jayhawks. Withey played just 15 minutes against Purdue. In the two games against Missouri this season — the Tigers used a four-guard lineup with 6-foot-6 Kim English at the “power forward” spot — Withey played a grand total of 32 minutes. In those three games, he averaged 2.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg and 1.0 bpg, well off the 9.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.5 bpg and 24.4 mpg he averaged for the season.
That means more minutes for Kevin Young, a back-up forward that is more versatile, and Conner Teahan, a former walk-on and back-up shooting guard that would allow one of the Jayhawk’s best defenders — Travis Releford — to play up front and defend Thomas. The downside is that means that Sullinger will have a better matchup in the post against Robinson since Withey will be strapped to the bench.
The other option Bill Self has is to use the triangle-and-two defense that has been such a valuable weapon for Kansas in this tournament. It would allow both Robinson and Withey to be on the floor at the same time, but there is a downside there, as well.
Kansas used that triangle-and-two in the second half against Purdue because the Boilermakers really only had two players that could score: Hummel and Lewis Jackson. North Carolina, however, had much more than two scoring threats. But with Stilman White running the point, it allowed Kansas to matchup man-to-man with Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock or PJ Hairston while sagging Taylor far enough off of White to make an entry pass into the post very difficult.
Aaron Craft may not be Jimmer Fredette, but he is good enough offensively that you cannot dare him to try and score.
The x-factor here will end up being Withey’s production on the offensive end of the floor. Common sense would lead one to believe that Thomas will be forced to guard Withey, as Sullinger will be tasked with trying to defend Robinson. Simply put, Thomas should not be able to stop Withey from finishing around the rim or be able to keep him from getting to the offensive glass.
That same was said about English and Hummel, however.
The key for Kansas will not actually be whether or not they are able to stop Thomas when their best lineup is on the floor. Kansas will have a mismatch of their own offensively. Their best chance at winning will be if they — and by they, I mean Withey — will be able to take advantage of it.