The Kansas Jayhawks expected to reach the Sweet 16 after advancing the Elite Eight a year ago and opening the season ranked fourth in the AP Top 25 poll. While the Jayhawks have a ton of postseason experience, their opponent on Friday night, the Clemson Tigers don’t possess that same quality.
This marks the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2010-11 season. Despite this lack of experience, Clemson cruised past New Mexico State and manhandled Auburn on its way to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 1997.
Now the Jayhawks and the Tigers will do battle on Friday night to see who will advance to the Elite Eight.
Midwest Region: No. 5 Clemson (24-9) vs. No. 1 Kansas (29-7)
Time: 7:07 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: CenturyLink Center Omaha (Omaha, NE)
Keys for Clemson
Clemson will have its hands full trying to contain a talented Kansas team that has four McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster. The Jayhawks’ best player is 6-foot-2 senior point guard Devonte’ Graham.
Graham is the one who makes the Jayhawks go. The unanimous Big 12 Player of the Year, he’s averaging 17.6 points, 7.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. He must be priority No. 1 for a Tigers defense that has held its first two NCAA Tournament opponents to 60.5 points per game on 32 percent shooting from the field.
Graham’s tag-team partner this year has been Udoka Azubuike. The 7-footer from Nigeria is averaging 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and also has 57 blocks this season. Malik Newman had a big game (28 points) against Seton Hall, so those three need to be Clemson’s focus on defense. The Tigers made the field in large part due to their defense, and they will need to maintain their level of play if they want to advance past Kansas.
Keys for Kansas
As talented as the Jayhawks are, this not a deep team, usually relying on seven players. For as physical as Clemson plays on both ends of the count, foul trouble could become an issue for Kansas if there are a lot of whistles early.
In the Tigers’ 84-53 dismantling of Auburn in the second round, Clemson held the other Tigers to just 26 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them 50-32. Four Clemson players finished in double figures while the team shot 48 percent overall and made 10 3-pointers. The Tigers have played tough defense all season, but the Jayhawks need to make things as difficult for them on the other end as points may be hard to come by.
Clemson in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997 makes for an exciting story. But with all happy endings, they usually come to an end.
Kansas will be by far the most talented team Clemson has played in the NCAA Tournament. Arguably, the Jayhawks might be the best team the Tigers have faced all season long. And don’t forget the ACC sent nine times to this year’s Big Dance
The difference in this game will likely be Devonte’ Graham, Kansas’ star player. Graham is far from a one-man show, however, as the Jayhawks have four others averaging double figures in scoring. But expect Graham to be at the forefront of Kansas’ game plan, whether it’s scoring or getting his teammates involved.
Although this year’s tournament has been crazy to predict, Kansas is the better team on paper and should get past Clemson and move on.
Prediction: Kansas 76, Clemson 67
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Clemson Men's Basketball Facebook page)