Eastern Kentucky's chances of upsetting second-seeded Kansas in Friday's South Region game depend on whether its seasoned, guard-heavy lineup can continue forcing mistakes.
The 15th-seeded Colonels (24-9) will need everything clicking to beat the Jayhawks (24-9) in St. Louis and earn their first tournament victory in eight tries. Guard Glenn Cosey and five fellow seniors must slow down a Kansas offense featuring heralded freshman Andrew Wiggins and maintain the offensive consistency that helped clinch the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title.
Scoring isn't an issue for EKU, which has matched or exceeded its 79-points-per-game average five times while winning seven straight. But beating the heavily-favored Jayhawks could require at least that many points along with the Colonels' best defensive effort this season in their first tournament appearance since 2007.
"Teams aren't going to have a problem with our length because we're not as long as other teams," said Cosey, EKU's top scorer at 18.8 points per contest.
"But our pressure and our style of play is different. We play fast, we have good guards. The main thing for us will be our pressure."
The Colonels' guard-laden lineup also hopes experience helps them compete against a Kansas squad averaging 79.6 points per game while allowing nearly 71, just like them.
EKU's challenge will be containing Wiggins (17.4 points per game), Perry Ellis (13.6) and Wayne Selden Jr. (10.2). Seven-foot rebounder and shot-blocker Joel Embiid is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his back, but the Colonels certainly have their hands full with Kansas' tall and talented roster.
"Both ends will be a challenge for us," said Colonels coach Jeff Neubauer, whose team will play its first NCAA tournament game since his second season as coach.
"Even with Embiid out, these guys are attacking the rim. What's scary about them is how they rebound. I mean, they're like the 10th best (in margin, +7.3), and we're (tied for) 10th worst (-6.1). One thing I've always stressed is stealing the ball, so that has to be our approach."
Neubauer's ball-hawking philosophy has paid off as EKU enters the tournament ranked second nationally in turnover margin at +6.3 per game. Since back-to-back losses to Morehead State and Tennessee Tech, the Colonels have surged behind a defense that has forced 15.4 turnovers per game including 19 in an OVC semifinal win over Murray State.
EKU forced just 11 against top-seeded Belmont in the title game but won 79-73 with 51 percent shooting and never trailed. Junior guard and tournament MVP Corey Walden scored a career-best 29 points, Cosey added 23 and senior Tarius Johnson 15.
More importantly, EKU held opponents below 47 percent from the field during the tournament.
Cosey, Johnson and fellow seniors Marcus Lewis and Orlando Williams have been regular contributors for EKU, while forward Jeff Johnson and guard Ryan Parsons have chipped in as reserves. In fact, Neubauer credits his whole roster for playing a role this season because the seniors set the tone.
EKU earned a conference championship as a result, but its veterans know they'll have to be near-perfect to stop Kansas.
"We've just been working on our defense," Cosey added. "We knew were going to face bigger teams, so we need to pressure the ball and just defend. We know we've got to play harder."