In the early years of the transition from Roy Williams to Bill Self, one complaint centered on Self coming from the Henry Iba coaching tree, which requires a defense-first, pound-it-inside mentality. Some missed the off-to-the-races style preferred by Williams, the most prominent branch to sprout from the Dean Smith tree.
It didn’t take long for those voices of discontent to fade away, and this year’s team has a chance to become Self’s best transition squad yet. He still preaches defense first and believes that in the half court the way to go is inside-out, but there’s nothing he likes more than the buckets that come from numbers advantages. His current team has the athletes to gain those advantages and cash in on them consistently.
“I don’t think our secondary break is very good at all,” Self said. “We don’t emphasize it as much as some other people do. But I think our primary’s real good.”
For one thing, Self has front-court players who run the court well, but that’s always the case. It’s the perimeter players, point guard Elijah Johnson and wings Ben McLemore and Travis Releford, who make this team pop in transition.
“I think if we can get numbers and are able to get the ball ahead in transition, there are few people who probably do it a lot better than us,” Self said. “Of course, we have two wing runners who are probably as good as anyone in the country and they’re great finishers. Trav has a nose for doing it and Ben, of course, he’s a gazelle.”
If McLemore and Releford are to college basketball what West Virginia wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are to college football, then it’s Johnson who plays the part of Geno Smith.
“Elijah does a great job of pitching ahead,” Self said. “One thing Elijah doesn’t do a great job of is attacking himself to create for others, but he’s an unbelievable pitch-ahead point guard, and when you pitch ahead to fast guys and they’ve got an angle, you know they’re hard to catch.”
No. 7 Ohio State, of course, is far better equipped to choke the break than Colorado, Belmont and Richmond, KU’s three most recent victims in Allen Fieldhouse by an average of 31 points.
“The better the competition, the less easy baskets you get,” Self said. “I’d be really disappointed if somebody were to play us and they say, ‘Yeah, they’re easy to get out and run on.’ That would be bad. I will tell you this, they’re not going to be easy to run on.”
That fact makes Self put all the more emphasis on making plays that lead to fast breaks.
“If you look at the game last year in New Orleans, we didn’t play very well at all, but they guarded us,” Self said. “And they didn’t play great, but we guarded them. The difference was for us in the second half, we were able to get some three-on-twos and two-on-ones and were able to make six or eight easy baskets or easy points that we didn’t have to go against half-court defense. That’s always a huge key, just stealing some points any way you can. And on the flip side, you just can’t give up easy points.”
For McLemore and freshman reserves Perry Ellis, Jamari Traylor and Andrew White III, the game represents the first taste of playing on another school’s home court.
“It’s a new experience for me,” McLemore said. “I just have to play aggressive, play as a team and give it all I’ve got.”
New environment, same approach. The location of the game doesn’t make it any easier to stop Releford and McLemore when they get ahead of the defense and Johnson has the ball in his hands, ready to thread the needle, the start to an explosive finish.