On Thursday, 16 seed Penn will face 1 seed Kansas and attempt to become the first 16 seed to ever beat a 1 seed. If it were ever going to happen – today is the day – this is the matchup.
First, it’s worth noting that these teams are both slightly mis-seeded. Analytically, Kansas resembles more of a 2-3 seeded team, while Penn that of a 14/15 seed. We’ve seen 15s beat 2s and 14 beat 3s. If this game was a 14 vs. 3, would people be more likely to pick Penn? It shouldn’t change your mind. The matchup is still the same - the teams are still the same.
Kansas plays 4 guards with 7-footer, Udoka Azubuike, manning the inside. They’ve been very successful so far this season, especially from beyond the arc - 10th in the nation in 3P%. It’s not surprising as playing 4 guards and a dominant post player often leads to an elite 3P%.
However, Penn is the 2nd best team in the nation at defending the 3. This is primarily driven by their ability to force and contest tough shots. According to a ShotQ, they have the best shot quality defense on jump shots.
Using season long statistics and trends, Penn could not have asked for a better 1 seed matchup.
Two questions still remain.
1. “Can Penn defend 7’0” center Azubuike?”
2. “Penn could stifle Kansas defensively, but can they score on Kansas?”
Azubuike hurt his leg and missed the entire Big 12 Conference Tournament. He’s a game time decision for their matchup and it doesn’t seem promising.
If he can’t go, both of these questions are answered.
Kansas doesn’t really use their bench. Of 351 D1 teams, their starting lineup plays the 6th highest percentage of available minutes in non-garbage time situations. That starting lineup consists of Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Legearld Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk, and, usually, Azubuike.
With the 7-footer out, the Jayhawks have been using Mitch Lightfoot and freshman Silvio De Sousa.
I analyzed their last 7 games, which includes the 3 conference tournament games they played without Azubuike. The graphic below shows how their starting lineup performed when Azubuike was on the court with them compared to the starters with Lightfoot or De Sousa.
The results are incredible. Yes, their 2P% is higher offensively without Azubuike, but Penn may be able to mitigate this effect in their matchup due to the fact that they have the lowest percentage of shots inside the paint.
The starters are significantly worse defensively without Azubuike – dropping them from .95 Def PPP to 1.16 Def PPP. Their 3P%, both offensively and defensively, also deteriorated without Azubuike on the floor.
Penn could have its way from deep if Azubuike can’t play. The Jayhawks’ starting lineup allowed their opponents to shoot 40% when Azubuike was replaced by Lightfoot or De Sousa – 16% worse than with Azubuike.
Good news for Penn fans, the Quakers have the ideal lineup to exploit the Jayhawks’ 3-point woes if Azubuike is out.
The graphic below shows Penn’s ‘small ball lineup’, which was their most efficient lineup in 14 games of conference play this season.
This lineup shot over 52% from 3, which was almost 20% higher than all of Penn's other lineups. Their +.33 NetRtg is Penn’s most efficient lineup and by a wide margin.
They only played this lineup around 6% of the time in conference play, but it’s worth noting that in their final regular season game they played this lineup almost 25% of the game – the most of any Penn lineup.
Shots have to drop for the Quakers and Kansas needs to miss some tough deep jumpers, but it’s possible. If Azubuike is ruled out, watch for this lineup vs. the Jayhawks’ starters. It will probably decide the game.