SAN ANTONIO – Previewing the Kansas-Richmond Southwest Regional semifinal:
What to watch: How do the Spiders handle the big stage? Richmond’s average home attendance this season was 5,959. Its average road attendance was 5,110. Neutral floor: 6,143. Now they move into a domed stadium that will be set up for around 30,000 fans -- most of them rooting for Kansas. This is, by every measure, a significant step up in class for the Spiders -- but this also is a team with four senior starters. If any group of collegians from a mid-major program is going to handle the inevitable butterflies and sweaty palms that accompany this assignment, you’ve got to like Richmond’s chances.
Conversely, how do the Jayhawks handle the pressure? They’re such prohibitive favorites -- in this game, and in this entire broken-bracket regional -- that domination will be the expectation. Anything less than that -- particularly a slow start against milk-the-clock Richmond -- will only feed the hope of the underdog and the anxiety of the Kansas legions in attendance. The Jayhawks believe they rid themselves of a significant upset demon by getting past the round of 32 (where they lost last year to Northern Iowa as the overall No. 1 seed), but now there are more massive underdogs ahead. They can afford to play pressure-free, while Kansas cannot.
Who to watch: For Richmond, the key players are forward Justin Harper and guard Kevin Anderson. Harper has transformed himself from a late bloomer who was more adept at playing the saxophone in the high school band than basketball. The 6-foot-10 senior is averaged 17.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and is shooting a deadly 45 percent from 3-point range. Anderson has been the program's heartbeat for four seasons. The school's No. 2 all-time scorer is averaging 16.7 points and leads the team in assists, steals and minutes.
For Kansas, the key players are the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. The brotherly bruisers are combining to average 31.2 points and 15.7 rebounds -- and those numbers swelled to 36 points and 20.5 rebounds in two NCAA tournament games in Tulsa. Everyone knows they have to stop the Morrises, and nobody has been able to do it.
Richmond wins if... : It can avoid being slaughtered on the glass and hit a lot of 3-pointers. The Spiders have been outrebounded on the season, and they’re going up against a Kansas team that has dominated the boards. The Jayhawks are sixth nationally in rebound margin at plus-7.9 per game. Richmond has done a better job on the boards lately, and that will have to continue Friday. To counteract what seems like an inevitable rebounding deficit, UR must shoot well from the outside. The Spiders are a 40 percent 3-point shooting team and have made 104 more 3s than their opposition -- whatever open looks they get Friday night, they need to make. Last year, Northern Iowa withstood KU's eight-rebound advantage by outscoring the Jayhawks by nine from the 3-point arc.
Kansas wins if... : It plays up to its capabilities. It’s really that simple for the Jayhawks -- they’re the better team. If they play inside-out with the Morris twins, hit a few timely 3s to keep the defense honest, take care of the ball and play with their customary defensive intensity, this outcome shouldn’t be in doubt in the final 10 minutes. If Kansas struggles to start and doesn’t cover Richmond outside the arc, it could get tense.
What they’re saying: Richmond guard Kevin Anderson, dreaming big: “Our focus is to get a national championship and Kansas is in the way right now, so we have to go out there and handle our business. … You don’t get to the Sweet 16 and decide that’s good enough. That’s not really a goal. I don’t want to sell our hard work short. Everyone’s saying we’re lucky to be in the Sweet 16, we’re lucky Morehead State beat Louisville. We want to prove those people wrong. What better way to do that than by beating Kansas?”
Bill Self, cautioning against seed-based overconfidence: “The field here is strong. It may not appear from a seeding standpoint to be as strong as 1, 2, 3 and 4 that are left, but I guarantee that there will be nobody that will be looking forward to playing anybody in this field right now. Once you get to the Sweet 16, you expect to play a great team. And we certainly have an opportunity to play a great one [Friday].”
Notable: Kansas certainly has fond memories of playing in the Alamodome. It won the 2008 national title here, courtesy of Mario Chalmers’ last-second 3-pointer that capped a miraculous rally against Memphis to send the game into overtime. “We were all walking together last night on the RiverWalk and just remembering the good times we had,” said senior guard Tyrel Reed, one of three Jayhawks who were on the ’08 team. … Richmond is 5-1 against teams from big-six conferences this season, beating Purdue, Arizona State, Seton Hall, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt and losing to Georgia Tech.