Kansas defense not living up to Bill Self's standards
Nine games into the season, Bill Self has a theory about his team’s defense.
So far, Kansas is allowing its opponents to make 40.9% of their shot attempts. Self wants that number to be in the mid- to high-30s. And the 13th-year KU coach thinks this team might be a little bit better defensively if it wasn’t so good on the other end of the floor.
Self’s hypothesis goes something like this: KU is doing so well offensively (see: 90.0 points per game, shooting 52.2% from the field, making 46.9% from 3-point range), it knows points are going to come. As a result, the Jayhawks don’t try as hard on defense as they could — or should.
“When you know that you labor to score, you're not a percentage-shooting team, then you really hunker down and do certain things,” Self elaborated, “because you know you have to to win. And our guys in the back of their mind, they're thinking, we're going to score enough points to win — which so far for the most part has been true — but it's not the right mentality.”
Kansas (8-1, ranked No. 2 in the nation) isn’t a “lockdown” defensive team at this point, according to Self. But the coach thinks that field-goal percentage defense number could improve, because his players are still figuring things out on “D.”
Self said KU’s coaches are trying to change the Jayhawks’ mentality and get it to where they’d be upset if their opponent got a quality shot attempt — whether the ball fell through the net or not.
Since Self took over the program before the 2003-04 campaign, KU has finished the year holding opponents below 40% shooting in every season but one. In 2013-14, KU foes hit 41.6% of their shot attempts, and the Jayhawks lost to Stanford in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32, with injured big man Joel Embiid unavailable.
The 2008 national championship team limited opponents to 37.9% shooting. KU’s 2012 national runner-up nearly duplicated that mark, at 38%. And when Self theorizes about not-so-great offensive teams playing better defense, he likely has that 2012 team in mind. The Thomas Robinson-led Jayhawks only averaged 73.5 points per game that season and shot 47.2% from the field.
Self thinks the 2015-16 Jayhawks are better on defense than the stats show. Case in point: KU’s 40.9% FG% D ranks 110th nationally. But basketball math wizard Ken Pomeroy ranks KU’s adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent) 13th in the country.
Still, Self says KU isn’t good enough on defense yet to “compete at the highest level.” And if there’s one deficiency holding Kansas back, it’s the absence of a consistent interior shot-blocker/intimidator.
“We've got to figure out a way to put up a little bit more resistance inside and have better shot blockers,” Self said.
KU is averaging 4.2 blocks per game. Of the team’s 38 total blocks, 13 have come from senior Hunter Mickelson and 6 have come from freshman Cheick Diallo (in just 4 appearances). The next best shot swatter is junior guard Wayne Selden Jr., with 5.
“Although we're blocking a decent number,” Self said, “you take Hunter and Cheick out of there, there's nobody blocking any shots.”
And Self isn’t even demanding every other front court player — Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Carlton Bragg — start protecting the rim. He said they don’t have to block shots to make KU’s interior defense better.
“If you're not a shot-blocking team,” he said, “then you should at least be an activity team, and we've got some big guys that are really not doing either one.”
For KU, far more activity has generated on the perimeter. Sophomore point guard Devonté Graham leads the team with 20 steals and fellow PG Frank Mason III, a junior, has registered 18 swipes. KU’s 8.4 steals per game rank 32nd in the country.
But so far this season, only Mickelson, Diallo, Graham and Mason have shown consistent ability to create havoc defensively. Steals and blocks not only mean empty possessions for opponents, they also tend to get KU’s fast-paced attack out and running, fueling momentum for Kansas while demoralizing whomever just came up empty-handed.
Until more Jayhawks start taking on active defensive roles, too, Kansas won’t reach its defensive ceiling, and that field-goal percentage defense number won’t be as low as Self wants it.