As Bill Self directs Kansas toward what he hopes will be the basketball program’s 13th consecutive Big 12 title, it has become clear this isn’t one of his typical teams, and not just because he doesn’t have as much frontcourt depth as he would like and is forced to play four-guard lineups much of the time.
Those perimeter-oriented combinations Self puts on the floor work so well because every guard and wing isn’t one-dimensional when the ball reaches his hands. The Jayhawks have drivers and shooters outside, and wouldn’t be ranked No. 2 in the country or riding a 15-game winning streak without the power of the 3-pointer.
Down nine at the half on the road Tuesday night at Oklahoma, KU recovered for an 81-70 victory by harnessing one of its biggest offensive strengths. A 3-for-11 first-half display from behind the arc influenced a putrid showing early against the worst team in the Big 12. But the Jayhawks and senior leader Frank Mason III proved, on most nights, opponents just aren’t going to be able to stop them from creating high-percentage 3-pointers and cashing in on the best of those looks.
Mason couldn’t miss from long range during the second-half KU rally, knocking in all four of his 3-point tries. When Mason takes over, his teammates follow. With juniors Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham joining the barrage, Kansas shot 9-for-16 from long range in the final 20 minutes.
Mykhailiuk, whose 3 just after intermission helped ignite a 54-point second half, said Mason, per usual, made everything easier for his teammates on offense.
“Oh, yeah, because he is a really good driver,” said Mykhailiuk, who scored all nine of his points on 3’s in the closing half. “I think nobody can guard him. He’s just beating his guy and the other guy gotta help, and that’s what (creates) open (shots).”
During his 28-point outing, the 5-foot-11 Mason only missed one of six 3-point attempts, bringing his percentage on the year to an astounding 54.9%. Mason, following his ninth game of 20-plus points this season, said it was just his night.
“The first shot I missed even felt good, but you know I was just in rhythm on every shot and I think all them 3’s I made were pretty good shot selections,” Mason said after knocking down at least five from deep for the third time in his spectacular senior season. “So I hope that continue to happen movin' forward.”
Before the Jayhawks (15-1 overall, 4-0 Big 12) get too excited about ranking fourth in the nation in 3-point accuracy (42.2%), though, their coach will remind them not all of their looks from downtown have been ideal.
“I thought they came pretty out of rhythm and I thought a lot of them came in transition and in the open court,” Self said on the subject of KU’s nine successful 3-pointers in the second half at OU (6-9, 0-4).
“You know, there was a really big play where Frank makes a terrible play, late clock, and they steal it and the kid (one of the Sooners) tries to throw it from his back, I think, up the court and we steal it back and make a 3,” Self gave as an example. “Plays like that, that could’ve been a five-point swing right there. So we were pretty fortunate on some plays like that.”
Even though Self previously has been a noted skeptic of trusting the 3-pointer, know that he says these types of things as a way to keep his players from settling, instead of working for a better shot. He knows this Kansas team has the shooters to capitalize from long range, but he wants them to do so on open looks off of ball movement or drive-and-kick situations whenever possible.
“But I thought we took pretty good looks,” Self admitted of a decisive second-half run when KU assisted on six of its nine 3’s.
Sixteen games into the season, Mason (39-for-71 from deep) has proven to be KU’s best from distance, but he also has help. Graham is shooting 38% (38 of 100), while both Mykhailiuk (36-for-81) and sophomore sub Lagerald Vick (20-for-45) are connecting on 44% of their 3’s. Among the guards, only freshman Jackson (9-for-35) has struggled, at 26%.
“When (Mason) and Devonte’ and Svi are shootin’ the ball,” Self said, “and Lagerald, too, although Lagerald didn’t (at OU, 1-for-2 on 3’s, 1-for-6 from the floor) — but when those guys are shootin' the ball well from the perimeter it makes it pretty hard to guard.”
KU has shot 40% or better from 3-point range in nine games now, and while an off night or a slump could come at some point, the Jayhawks won’t abandon the weapon they’ll need to get this team where it wants to go.
Said Mykhailiuk: “We’re shooting pretty good. You know, everybody can shoot on our team: Frank, Devonte’, me, Josh, Lagerald. So we’re just driving the ball real aggressive and when the defense sucks in we just throw it to the 3-point line. It’s an open shot.”