Rare Double Spotlight Night: Kansas - K-State & Duke - Maryland

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RARE DOUBLE SPOTLIGHT NIGHT: KANSAS STATE/KU, DUKE/MARYLAND

We had circled the Duke/Maryland game on our calendar a long time ago. That's the two best teams in the ACC (Duke is 12-2 in the current conference standings, while Maryland is 11-3). And, since referees are contractually obligated to allow Duke to win nothing but home blowouts...the game AT MARYLAND would surely be the "game of the year" in the league.

Given the rash of respect given Kansas State in recent weeks (currently projected as a #2 seed in  Joe Lunardi's "bracketology" report at ESPN), it seemed appropriate that we add in tonight's Kansas State/Kansas game for SPOTLIGHT coverage as well. That's the top two teams in the Big 12 (13-1 for Kansas, 11-3 for Kansas State), and if there's one budding superpower who hasn't been on TV enough this year...it's obviously Kansas State.

Let's run ALL FOUR teams through our SPOTLIGHT gauntlet of key profile factors so you can get an accurate sense of what to expect tonight...and in the coming weeks in conference tourneys, and the Big Dance.

First, their AP rankings.
#2 Kansas
#4 Duke
#5 Kansas State
#22 Maryland

Obviously, we can't skip over #5 playing #2 just because the ACC is having it's biggest game of the season! In terms of the national polls, and probable tournament impact, Kansas State-Kansas is the bigger game.

In "bracketology" projections:
Kansas is projected to be a #1 seed
Duke is projected to be a #1 seed
Kansas State is projected to be a #2 seed
Maryland is projected to be a #6 seed

We head into every MARCH MADNESS thinking Duke is going to be overseeded. We've been right for several years! We have to admit that Kansas State may be in that boat as well. There's just no way to know how good the Big 12 really is until everyone gets out of their league. Maybe Kansas State really is a top five team. Maybe they're around 20th at a time when sportswriters just make guesses about the non-TV teams.

We should note that Maryland's relatively distant fade in rankings and bracketology reflects a growing sense around the nation that the ACC really isn't all that great any more. We've been saying it for a few years now. North Carolina was certainly great last year. No doubt about that. The league as a whole has underachieved pretty badly in March. Glad someone besides us finally noticed!

On to the profile categories...

TEMPO
Kansas State: lightning fast, top 25 nationally in pace
Maryland: very fast, top 50 nationally out of more than 300 teams
Kansas: fast, top third of the nation
Duke: about average this year...Coach K will go fast some years, slow others.

We've talked a lot this year about how many of the top contenders are pushing tempo. They fly at the basket and dare you to deal with it. It's a quick way to respectability if you're building a program. It's a force in the tournament because nobody wants to get in early foul trouble. Duke is one of the few powers that's going to try to win without using that approach. It's a hidden negative that's probably going to show up at some point. Let's see tonight if Duke gets into foul trouble, or is able to rise to the challenge. Remember that struggling tonight against a projected 6th seed ranked 22nd in the nation could foreshadow doom in the Dance against anyone with an even better pedigree.

TWO-POINT OFFENSE
Kansas: 53%...among the nation's top 20
Kansas State: 50%
Maryland: 50%
Duke: 47%, which is actually BELOW average nationally

We tend to focus on two-point defense (which we'll get to in a moment) rather than two-point offense. But, our game SPOTLIGHT coverage has touched on both...so we decided to add both today. Kansas is lethal inside. It's just amazing how well they grade out in so many important categories. Kansas State and Maryland are in a virtual dead heat...and no doubt get some cheapies because of their tempo. In terms of learning stuff for the Big Dance, we'd rather see Duke play Kansas tonight and Kansas State play Maryland! We're surprised Duke grades out so poorly here given how much hype their shooters get from ESPN.

TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Kansas: 39%...second in the nation, this is a GREAT defense!
Maryland: 41%...which ranks top 10 nationally, a clear strength
Duke: 45%
Kansas State: 45%

Our single favorite indicator stat puts Kansas is a very favorable light. That's an amazing spread...+14 percentage points from offense to defense. You really have to nail a lot of treys to beat that in a neutral court game. Maryland's getting the job done with defense this year. They deserve more credit than they're getting. We've seen 100 stories about the collapse of North Carolina, none about the great defense that's launched Maryland up to compete for the conference crown. Mediocre showings for Duke and Kansas State...which helps you understand why we think they'll be overseeded. If you allow 45% inside the arc to a composite of everyone you face...then it's going to be worse against good teams. That's who you face in the Dance.

THREE-POINT OFFENSE
Kansas: 40%...top ten in the nation
Duke: 39%...top 20 nationally
Maryland: 39%...also top 20 nationally
Kansas State: 36%

We had guessed that Duke would make up ground for prior weaknesses here. But, they really don't. Kansas is even better percentage-wise...and Maryland ties them. All three are excellent by national standards. And, we should note that Duke makes very good use of that percentage in terms of attempts. It's a bigger part of the Duke offense...meaning they're exploiting that plus better than the other guys because they take more attempts. They pick up some ground, but not enough. Kansas State is well off the pace, making it look more and more like they're not really a #2 seed. They're a nice team...in a year where you could probably say that about anyone seeded 2-7...and maybe even deeper. We're going to see some very tight pointspreads.

BENCH PLAY
Kansas State: some depth, top third nationally in bench minutes
Kansas: slightly below average nationally in bench minutes
Maryland: limited bench, in the bottom 25% nationally
Duke: very limited bench...one of the lowest percentages nationally

To the degree that Kansas is playing with fire, it's in playing a fast tempo with a below average bench. That could lead to late season fatigue...particularly in very intense tournament games that come two days apart. Kansas State will hope to exploit its depth by forcing a fast pace on tournament foes. Duke has found a way to exploit its strengths and hide its weaknesses so far. That's going to be tougher against up tempo foes in the Dance. This is one team that just can't afford any foul trouble.

Quick profiles off that information:

KANSAS: clearly a very serious national championship contender that's superior in many of the best indicator categories. Anything can happen in college hoops. If they run into a hot opponent at the wrong time, they may not go the distance. And, certainly, somebody like Syracuse is also a superpower that deserves a lot of championship consideration. It's a short list this year of teams who are playing at that truly elite level.

DUKE: we've been saying for years that this is a team that creates illusions thanks to three-pointers and free throws at home, then plays to their TRUE level when losing MARCH MADNESS games. Our "Phantom Score" invention helped us see that years ago. Today's profile stats help paint the same picture. Nothing special in the area of two-pointers...not much to challenge opponents with if the three's aren't falling and refs aren't bailing them out...and nothing on the bench if surprises come up. The stars have to align perfectly for this group to go the distance. They're just not as good as you think they are...or, maybe...not as well suited to the rigors of a tournament as the media would have you believe.

KANSAS STATE: Not there yet in our view. We respect how far they've come so quickly. They are using a style that the best championship threats are employing. Our profile stats suggest a team that's more like 20th in the nation rather than 5th.

MARYLAND: We'd have to say they've been pegged fairly accurately in the polls and "bracketology" stuff. That great defense gives them a chance to be a real darkhorse in the Dance should they avoid a first round upset. We'll learn a lot tonight about how well this group of players stands up to challenges. They played very poorly on the road at Duke this year. A bad loss tonight, and we may write off the whole ACC for March investment purposes.

Here at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK, we're definitely looking forward to tonight's busy card. We may get involved in either (or both) of these big games. Also on the radar tonight:

Memphis at UAB in Conference USA
Illinois at Ohio State on the Big 10 Network
Connecticut at Notre Dame on ESPN
Wake Forest at Florida State on ESPN2
Temple at Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10
Oklahoma State at Texas A&M on ESPN2
Oklahoma City at Denver in the NBA

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Back tomorrow to preview more mid-major tournament action. Fasten your seat belts folks...this next month is going to be a WILD RIDE!

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21
Nov

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