Villanova vs Kansas Preview: Daily Kansan Q&A


Courtesy of John Biehler/University Daily Kansan

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji will be key in Saturday’s Final Four matchup.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Villanova vs Kansas Preview: Daily Kansan Q&A

Before Villanova’s Final Four matchup with Kansas, we interviewed Nathan Swaffar, the Kansas basketball beat writer from The University Daily Kansan, Kansas’s student newspaper, about his team and his predictions for Saturday’s game.

This conversation has been edited for clarity. A shortened version of this conversation was published in print.

Q: Kansas has a rich basketball tradition, as the Jayhawks have been a powerhouse for decades. What’s been the key to Kansas’s historical success?

Nathan Swaffar: I kind of split KU’s historical success up into quite a few different timeframes. Obviously you have Phog Allen, Father of College Basketball, coached here. He started this culture of winning. Pretty much all the way from the 1920s up to his retirement, they were winning, and they were winning a lot. He kick-started that culture and it’s continued from there.

As you get up into the Roy Williams era, he never won a championship, but took that team to four Final Fours. That success continued when Bill Self came in and won a National Championship in 2008. He’s now on his fourth Final Four. Historically it’s really just been a culture.

They’ve been able to continue that because blue-bloods like KU and Kentucky and North Carolina, I’d throw Duke in there, but those three teams have been so good for so long. Duke didn’t really come onto the scene until the 70s when Coach K came in, but those other three teams they’ve been around since the forties, fifties, sixties. They’ve really been able to just continue that culture all the way up until this point.

They have a chance to really add another chapter to it if they can somehow manage to win the national championship this year.

Q: Kansas entered the season ranked third, with Final Four aspirations. It has met those goals and made it to New Orleans. How have the Jayhawks been able to meet high expectations and make it this far?

NS: It’s been a long season for KU. They really came in with national championship aspirations. They returned most of everybody from last year’s squad. Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson, who tested the draft waters, decided to come back and try to win a championship. You’ve had the emergence of Christian Braun, he’s taken his game to a whole other level this year. David McCormick, as inconsistent as he’s been, he’s really come up clutch when it mattered for KU the most. 

They have a lot of depth pieces, especially talking about transfers. They brought in Remy Martin and Jalen Coleman, who’s been a pretty good shooter. They had a really good freshman class. They had some big men, Zack Clemens and KJ Adams, who have provided that extra depth, maybe when McCormick or Mitch Lightfoot have been in foul trouble.

Lightfoot has been here for six years now and never seems to leave, but [he] has been an incredibly crucial piece to this team off the bench. 

They came into this season thinking they’re going to dominate all year. And, Ochai Agbaji is having one of the best seasons by any player ever. He’s in the conversation for National Award’s Consensus, All-American, which hasn’t been one [at KU] since Devonte’ Graham in 2018. He took his game to a whole other level when we got into the season. 

But the big question mark had been Remy Martin, because he’s had lingering injuries all season long, and they never been a hundred percent up until we got near the end of the season and into the Big 12 tournament, where he has emerged as the player that everybody thought he would be at the beginning of the season. He’s been that floor director, but not as dynamic of a scorer as he was at Arizona State. But he hasn’t had to be the only guy. I wouldn’t say he’s the glue guy, but he’s been their most important player in the postseason so far. He was the Midwest region’s Most Outstanding Player, with 23 points against Providence, which was a season high for him. He’s really starting to show what a lot of people thought he would at the beginning of the season. 

Coming into the tournament, not many people thought Kansas would be able to make it this far, but Martin has had other plans. He’s really elevated this team to a level that, mid-season, people didn’t think they could hit.

Q: Ochai Agbaji has been Kansas’s leading scorer throughout the season, yet as you’ve said, Remy Martin has been the guy during the NCAA Tournament. Who would you say is the top dog in the Jayhawk offense right now?

NS: In terms of pure consistency throughout this tournament, it’s been Remy Martin. He’s just been absolutely incredible. 

Ochai Agbaji had really struggled up until this last game against Miami, he had a season low five points against Providence and he really hadn’t been finding a consistent offense for himself. He wasn’t shooting well. It wasn’t that he didn’t look comfortable, he just seemed off. He had 15 points against Creighton, but he made a shot for the second path. 

But I’d say those two are equally as important because when Ochai is playing well, it’s debatable whether there’s a better consistent guard in the country than him. Last game, against Miami, Remy Martin only had nine points, he didn’t have a 15-20 point game, but Ochai Agbaji scored 18 off of 8-12 shooting. I’d argue that they’re equally important to offensive success as anybody else. Those two guys are so important, but I’d also argue that anybody in the starting five for KU, whether it be Christian Braun or Dave McCormick or Dajuan Harris, because Dajaun Harris actually still starts over Remy Martin because Bill Self likes Martin off the bench more.

Harris doesn’t have the offensive abilities that Martin does by any means, but Christian Braun and Dave McCormick have proven that they can go off on any given night. Christian Braun scored more than 30 against St. John’s early in the season. Dave McCormick had a 22-point, 10-rebound game against Texas in their final regular season matchup. So in reality, yes, Remy and Ochai are equally as important, being the big offensive scorers for this team. But in reality, either one of those other guys, Christian Braun, David McCormick, and even Jalen Wilson, really can step into that role as well.

Q: Everyone’s saying that Kansas just played their best half of basketball season in the second half against Miami. Would you say that’s true and what’s the key to continuing that play?

NS: I would absolutely say that was the best half of basketball they’ve played on both ends, especially. I’d say the keys to success going into that half, is that this team all season had been pretty poor on defense. They didn’t have one of those stifling Bill Self defenses like in 2008, when they won the national championship. Or even last year, they didn’t have the best defense, but they made people play so badly. They had one of the best college defensive players, Marcus Garrett.

And that’s really been one of the keys to success: their defensive efficiency has gotten so much better. I don’t really pay attention to KenPom a lot, but I know they’ve risen from 40th to 20th in defensive efficiency rankings, which is seemingly unprecedented in a tournament like this. When you look at what they did against Miami, they absolutely shut them down defensively in the second half.

That was actually sparked by their last play in the first half. They brought in freshman KJ Adams on Kameron McGusty, who had just been dominating them up to that point. I think KJ almost brought what they could look like in that second half if they played defense well, and that’s exactly what they did to Dejuan Harris. He’s more known for his defense than anything else, and he really turned it up in the second half. 

The thing for KU is that defense leads the offense because their transition game is probably the best in the country. They are so good on the fast break. If they get you in a track meet, they’re probably going to beat you most of the time. That’s exactly what they did to Miami. And it showed. They outscored them 47 to 15 in the second half alone. It was just a beating. If KU can play like that and their next four halves, they’re there.

I don’t think there’s anybody that could stop them from winning a national championship at that rate.

Q: I’ve looked at the KenPom numbers and the offensive and defensive numbers are very, very similar because of that. Who would you say is the X-Factor for today’s game or for the game?

NS: It’s a tough one because you got to find somebody who has been very consistent on offense and defense. I would say Dajuan Harris, but he hasn’t had that offensive firepower that everybody else on this team has had. He’s had his moments. His season high is 15 points or something like that, but it’s nothing incredibly impressive, and he doesn’t do it super consistently. But I would say that it’s Remy Martin. 

People were on him when he actually played during the regular season. I didn’t watch a lot of film from him on Arizona State, but you could tell he was uncomfortable in Bill Self’s defensive schemes. He just wasn’t comfortable with it. And so it made him look pretty bad, but his defensive prowess has really turned up in the tournament. 

Later in the Providence game, Kansas was up by five or six under four minutes, and there was a possession where if Providence gets points, it’s a whole different game. (Martin) was just glued to Al Durham. He was maybe one of the best defensive players we’ve seen all season or defensive possessions, especially from him. And that translates on the other end because he has that offensive firepower. 

So, I would say Remy Martin has been very good on both ends of the floor. He’s been the X-Factor on both ends. There are occasions where he still struggles a little bit on the defensive end, but compared to what he did early in the season, he looks so much better in the postseason.

Q: What’s your prediction for the game?

NS: I think the Justin Moore injury is really gonna hurt Villanova. I remember watching that and the first thing I thought is that, if KU wins, that’s an immediate, complete mismatch, especially with depth. KU, as much as Bill Self likes to play at consistent seven or eight (players), he can go as deep as 10 with this bench because he has so many playmakers. Maybe not as much talent, but he’s got guys who can come in and give consistently good minutes.

I think that’s really gonna hurt Villanova in this game. But, if this game does get ugly, which KU has been proven to do this season when they’re not shooting well and maybe not as good on the defensive end, that definitely favors Villanova in the long run.

If ‘Nova can make it an ugly game, that gives them a much greater chance to win. However, if this starts to be a KU-type of game, it’s going to be a track meet, and that will really hurt ‘Nova because of their depth issues. These guys are going to get tired quickly because if KU gets in transition, it’s so hard to get back. You better hope you have one or two guys back defending, and even then it’s probably not going to matter. And before you know it, you can be down by five points at one point and then be down by 12 two minutes later.

I think it will actually kind of be a combination of two. I think there will be moments where Nova has the game going their way and having it be a more ugly game. But, what we saw against Miami with KU is that once they get into an offensive rhythm, it’s nearly impossible to get them out of it. I think KU is going to finally get past this Villanova demon that has plagued them for a while, and I think I’ll have to go 79-70, KU.