Austin, Texas — Points have been tough to come by in the Big 12 Conference this season, and, after back-to-back games of 66 points, Kansas coach Bill Self is in search of a way to change that.
“We hung 66 tonight and it felt like we were really on fire,” Self said after KU’s 66-52 win at Oklahoma on Tuesday, which came four days before KU knocked off Texas, 66-57, in Austin. “That’s how hard it is to score.”
The reasons for this are many, and cover both common themes throughout the conference and issues specific to individual teams.
But as much as he and his coaching staff continue to work on ways to get easier offense for the sixth-ranked Jayhawks (14-3 overall, 4-1 Big 12), Self said he thought better efficiency was the way to combat the trend of defense carrying the day in the Big 12.
“I don’t see it going away,” he said. “The way (Texas) Tech and Baylor and West Virginia play defense, and OU’s good defensively, Texas is really good, K-State hangs their hat on that and, of course, we try to guard too. It could be a first-one-to-60 type league. I know that’s not exciting for a lot of people, but the spin on the positive is those are more like NCAA Tournament games. So you learn to grind out games like that and play low-possession games, which may translate to the way games are in the NCAA Tournament.”
For Kansas, the biggest factor in its recent scoring slump — 65.2 points per game in Big 12 play after averaging 81.1 during the season’s first 12 games — has been outside shooting.
It’s not so much that the Jayhawks are shooting a poor percentage from behind the arc. Their 36.1% shooting from 3-point range leads the Big 12 and ranks 56th nationally. But their inability to consistently space the floor with reliable shooters as they have done in recent seasons has not only taken points off the board from the 3-point shot but also made it harder for Kansas to score inside.
“We’re not going to shoot as many (3-pointers) as most because we try to get the ball inside,” Self said after the Texas win. “But if (we) shoot 18 3s, we’ve got to be a team that can make six or seven.”
Self used the Texas offense, which routinely surrounds big man Jericho Sims with four capable shooters, as an example.
“When you have four guys out there that have all attempted 68 or 69 (3-pointers on the season), that means everybody’s shooting 4.5 a game or whatever (and then teams) have to guard all the spots and that makes it easier to get the ball inside. With us, they’re not guarding all the spots. And that’s what makes it hard for us to get inside. So we’ve got to do a better job of having guys step up and want to be aggressive beyond the arc. Because (we’re) not going to continue to win unless you can make people guard the entire court.”
After the Oklahoma victory, which featured reserve guard Isaiah Moss scoring 20 points and knocking in six 3-pointers, Self said the best way for the Jayhawks to improve their offense was to play small more often, mimicking what Texas does or what Self has done most often during the past few seasons.
In order for that to work, the shooters have to be there — both as players who can make 3-point shots but also as players who are willing to take them.
Against the Longhorns, they were not and KU attempted just 10 3-point shots and made only two of them.
Self said that type of production not only wasn’t good enough but also was a predictor that poor outside shooting, if not fixed, would “catch up” with the Jayhawks.
“It just puts too much pressure on the defense to get stops when you can’t stretch the floor,” Self said.
It’s not just 3-point shooting that is plaguing this Kansas offense. In addition to being one of the poorest passing teams Self has had at Kansas, these Jayhawks also are just not getting quite as many opportunities to score because of the suffocating defenses throughout the Big 12 Conference.
After averaging 74 possessions per game during their first five games of the season, the Jayhawks are down to just 63 possessions per game during the last five.
And even though their efficiency numbers have remained high — through five games, KU leads the Big 12 in points per possession (1.03) — fewer possessions has meant fewer points and less potential for the offense to break out.
In four of the first five conference games, including Saturday’s win at Texas, the Jayhawks have been stuck in the 20s at halftime.
So while he waits for his bench to produce more and his shooters to hit their stride and become more reliable, Self has relied on the one thing he knows works — pounding the ball inside to 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike, who leads the nation in field goal percentage at 77.6%.
“For Dok to get cooking, he needs to catch it at 2 feet,” Self said. “He’s just so big. And even if he doesn't score, it’s like running the football. Even if you only get 4 yards a carry, it still wears on people over the course of time.”