It’s not who starts a basketball game that matters most, Kansas coach Bill Self is fond of saying, it’s who finishes it.
In Saturday’s come-from-behind, 64-59 victory against Texas in Austin, Texas, the Jayhawks who finished it did so in style.
After Kevin Young was guilty of a passive defensive challenge on a bucket and then tossed away a wild pass, Self had seen enough. With 6:08 left and trailing by four points, KU’s 10th-year coach signaled Naadir Tharpe off the bench and told him to replace Young.
The move made Kansas nine inches shorter and 10 times better for the stretch run.
Sheldon McClellan drove for a bucket to pump the Longhorns’ lead to six points with 5:36 left. From that point, Jeff Withey and guards Tharpe, Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore and Travis Releford teamed to play extraordinary defense, and the careless passing ceased. Kansas won the rest of the game, 17-6.
“We usually do it in late-game situations whenever we’re ahead to get our best free-throw shooters and ballhandlers in the game,” Self said of the lineup. “Nothing else was working. It was a muddy track all day. There was no rhythm, so I thought we might as well try it.”
It worked so well look for Self to try it earlier and more often, especially Tuesday night against Kansas State, which starts four guards.
UT’s small lineup at the time of the switch and Releford’s defensive versatility enabled Self to make the move without reservations. Self has been known to switch Releford onto the opposing point guard if Johnson and Tharpe can’t keep him from penetrating. When Kansas goes small, Releford guards the power forward. That makes the fifth-year senior from Bishop Miege High one valuable piece to the team likely to be ranked second in the nation when the Associated Press releases its college basketball poll today.
“They had (Ioannis Papapetrou) at the four, so it was a lineup that we actually could try it against and put Travis on him, and Travis was able to hold his own on him, when we did that,” Self said.
The coach didn’t substitute again until seven seconds remained. It made it tougher for Texas to handle the ball, as evidenced by three late turnovers, and to shoot (2-for-6). Meanwhile, Kansas made five of eight shots and didn’t turn it over in the final 5:55.
The strong finish can’t all be attributed to the lineup. Kansas consistently plays like the veteran team it is down the stretch, even on days such as Saturday when it lacks poise and pizazz earlier in the game. A young Texas team consistently self-destructs late.
But the success of the lineup for such a long stretch at the very least gives Kansas State coach Bruce Weber one more wrinkle for which to prepare going into the in-state rivalry between the Big 12’s only 4-0 teams.
It won’t come as a surprise to anybody if Self doesn’t wait until late in the game to use the four-guard lineup for significant stretches. It actually matches up better with K-State, which starts small guards Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling, wings Shane Southwell and Rodney McGruder and power forward Thomas Gipson.
The Wildcats responded to Weber’s move to a smaller lineup with the eight-game streak they take into Tuesday’s showdown.
Even excluding the five inches Withey has on Gipson, KU’s small lineup is bigger by an insignificant three-quarters of an inch per man than K-State’s. Discounting the 35 pounds Gipson has on Withey, Kansas State’s other four starters weigh an insignificant one pound per man more than the four guards in KU’s small lineup.
With Tharpe on Rodriguez, Johnson on Spradling, McLemore on Southwell and Releford on McGruder, there isn’t an obvious match-up for the Wildcats to single out as a vulnerable one.
If Kansas looks to exploit Withey’s height advantage against Gipson, Weber has the option of bringing 6-foot-11 shot-blocker Jordan Henriquez off the bench.
Whichever 10 players are on the floor, the student-heavy Bramlage Coliseum crowd, which produces one of the conference’s liveliest atmospheres, will shake the place.
Big game, so big that somebody has a red face for not putting it on national TV.