For shooters on Bill Self’s teams, there’s a five-letter word that’s just as bad as any four-letter swear word: “slump.”
“I don’t like it if a guy were ever — a shooter — to ever admit that he’s in a slump,” Self said Friday.
And to his credit, sophomore guard Christian Braun didn’t spew such coarse language as “slump” while speaking with reporters on a video call earlier in the day. Rather, he said he was “just missing shots right now.”
The topic of Braun’s 3-point shooting came up ahead of Saturday’s home matchup with Iowa State, because, well, Braun hasn’t connected on many of his looks from beyond the arc recently.
After Braun, a 6-foot-6 guard who graduated from nearby Blue Valley Northwest High, went 16 for 36 (44.4%) in seven nonconference games to open the year, many expected him to continue burning KU opponents from downtown in conference play.
But his 3-point mark against Big 12 foes is 10 for 34 (29.4%) in six games. And that number is buoyed by one game in particular, against West Virginia, where he caught fire and went 6 of 12 from long range. Since the start of 2021, KU has played four games, in which Braun is a combined 4 for 19 (21.1%).
In total, Braun is 26 for 70 (37.1%) from 3-point range so far this season. He went 32 for 72 (44.4%) as a freshman.
Braun said he hadn’t noticed anything that was consistently affecting his shooting during KU’s 10-3 start.
“I just think I need to hit shots, shoot the ball better,” Braun said. “All that takes is just to keep shooting. I can’t go away from that. I know I’m a good shooter, and they’re going to fall eventually. I’ve just got to keep putting them up.”
That’s the perfect approach for a reliable shooter like Braun to take. It’s also part of the mindset his coach wants to see from him.
“I don’t think he’s in a slump,” Self said. “I think he’s missed shots.”
There are plenty of other ways to impact the outcome of a basketball game, of course. Self said that’s one of the first lessons he ever learned from his father, Bill Self Sr.
If Braun were just a 3-point specialist and nothing else, he wouldn’t be a starter at KU averaging 30.2 minutes per game. Braun is averaging 8.3 points while shots aren’t dropping for him in Big 12 play, but he also contributes 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals. On the season, he has led or tied for the team lead twice in rebounds and three times each in assists and steals. He even led KU in blocks versus Kentucky with two.
Braun stands out by making hustle plays and winning plays. According to the numbers KU keeps, he has a team-high 17 floor burns this season.
Though Self always wants his players doing more on those fronts, the coach is not worried about Braun’s 3-point shooting.
“A guy that has a reputation of being a shooter, you should not base his good or poor play based on if the ball goes in the hole or not,” Self said. “There’s plenty of other things guys can do to bring value, to help a team win. And Christian’s certainly capable of doing that. And he knows that.”
Braun’s effort and execution in other aspects of the game, no doubt, have helped him remain composed about his 3-pointers.
“You know, a lot of them are going in and out,” Braun said. “I think I have (continued to be assertive). There’s been a couple of games where I went 1 for 5 or I’ve gotten enough up. I just need to hit the shots. And that’s on me.”
Even on days when those quality looks rim out, Braun is a valuable player for the Jayhawks. And when he is knocking down 3-pointers on top of everything else he does, it’s KU’s opponents who are doing the cursing.
Christian Braun’s 3-pointers through six Big 12 games
Dec. 17 at Texas Tech: 0-for-3, 2 points
Dec. 22 vs. West Virginia: 6-for-12, 22 points
Jan. 2 vs. Texas: 0-for-5, 4 points
Jan. 5 at TCU: 2-for-4, 10 points
Jan. 9 vs. Oklahoma: 1-for-6, 5 points
Jan. 12 at Oklahoma State: 1-for-4, 7 points
Look at where David McCormack’s shot attempts came from in his season-high scoring night at TCU earlier this week, and it’s not surprising that the Kansas veteran big man enjoyed his most productive offensive game to date.
KU’s junior pivot scored a season-best 20 points — marking the second time in his college career he put up at least that many — on 7-for-9 shooting. His 77.8% field goal percentage put him above 50% against a Division I opponent for the first time this season.
McCormack, who in the Jayhawks’ first 10 games averaged 3.0 shot attempts at the rim, while attempting 5.4 per game from farther out, made a habit of doing damage deep inside the paint versus the Horned Frogs.
Of course, McCormack helped himself out by not settling for midrange jumpers. He went 4-for-4 at the rim (another big positive, considering he entered the week shooting below 50% from point-blank range this season), and 3-for-5 away from the rim. Even better: McCormack only took two shots that were from outside the paint — three if you want to be a stickler and count an attempt from around the right block.
Earlier this week, Bill Self called McCormack’s showing at TCU “dominant.” On Friday, ahead of the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks’ home game versus Oklahoma, KU’s head coach said his starting big man played to his size in the rout of TCU.
While praising McCormack on a number of fronts, Self pointed to the junior’s low post positioning and the job he did making himself available for passes deeper in the paint than normal.
“That takes some physicality to do that. I just thought he played to who he is,” Self said, referencing the measurements of the 6-foot-10, 250-pound man, and putting an emphasis on the word man while describing his player.
Although McCormack has endured some subpar offensive games so far, Self said he rarely is disappointed in the big man’s effort.
“I think sometimes guys can try really hard and give really good effort, but it doesn’t look like they’re doing it because they’re a little out of whack in some form or fashion or their balance is off, or technique’s off some, or whatever,” Self said. “I think David for the most part has always given great effort.”
In his first couple of seasons at KU, McCormack often played sped up. As Self referenced, it wasn’t that he wasn’t trying. Now the Jayhawks need him to harness his energy on offense by carving out good position inside for himself on a regular basis.
“I do think he’s got to do some things from a technique standpoint that allow him to create opportunities to get easy baskets,” Self said. “And I thought he did that (at TCU). And when he was in position to get them the other day, I thought he did a better job of finishing or demanding the ball or put himself in positions where they had to throw it to him.”
KU’s perimeter players obviously don’t mind feeding McCormack.
“All it is is just throwing the ball in there,” sophomore guard Christian Braun said of how KU can keep finding success scoring inside. Braun said McCormack and the other bigs are “more than capable” of scoring.
McCormack now has proven an inside-focused offensive approach can boost his productivity (10.5 points per game through KU’s first 11, fourth on the roster). And making a point to take the ball up strong inside should make even better use of one of McCormack’s strengths: his free-throw shooting.
The largest man in a KU uniform has a soft touch at the foul line. McCormack heads into Saturday’s home game versus Oklahoma having made 21 free throws in a row (he went 6-for-6 at TCU). On the year, he’s 38-for-44 (86.4%). Only Jalen Wilson (36-for-55, 65.5%) has attempted more for KU.
No one’s asking McCormack to average 20 points a game. But putting a priority on taking more of his shot attempts inside will make him a more effective and efficient scorer — especially if he can increase his 4.0 free throw attempts a game in the process.
In KU’s first three Big 12 games, McCormack was trending in the wrong direction offensively, shooting 7-for-23 (30.4%) and averaging 8.3 points. He proved at TCU a different line of attack can make him far more impactful.
As this Kansas basketball team steadily proceeds toward March, the Jayhawks could make their path to Indianapolis and the NCAA Tournament a little easier by continuing to address an issue that has plagued them throughout their first 10 games.
Even in victories, the Jayhawks consistently missed some of the most desirable shots they took — the ones around the rim.
Entering this week, KU as a team was averaging just 12.5 makes a game on 21.9 attempts from point-blank range. The Jayhawks’ 57.1% success rate on layups, dunks and such, per hoop-math.com, ranked 252nd in the nation through games played on Jan. 3. Every team in the top 100 in that category is converting 63.8% of the time or better.
The Jayhawks’ issues with finishing around the rim emerged immediately this season, in their first couple of games, and they haven’t gone away.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game at TCU, KU head coach Bill Self had plenty of reasons to present when asked why he thought his Jayhawks haven’t fared better when they’re taking shots close to the basket.
“We don’t have guys that play above the rim,” Self began.
In recent seasons, of course, KU feasted off of the length and power of Udoka Azubuike (144-for-169, 85.2% at the rim in 2019-20) inside. While these Jayhawks aren’t blessed with such a dominating big man, as Self pointed out, they don’t exactly have the same types of guards who can get to the paint and finish layups like they did in the past, either — he dropped the names of Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Devon Dotson.
“And I think a lot of times our shot selection’s poor, too,” Self added.
KU’s coach didn’t call any players out for their shot selection. But in the Jayhawks’ first 10 games, one player in particular — starting big David McCormack — took nearly twice as many attempts away from the rim than he did near it.
McCormack hasn’t yet become a consistent scoring threat inside (14-for-30, 46.7% on shots at the rim), but he’s making himself even more of a strain on the offense by settling for even lower-percentage looks from farther out (18-for-54, 33.3%).
Even though McCormack played 90 minutes more than backup Tyon Grant-Foster through KU’s first 10 games, the veteran big only had two more makes at the rim than Grant-Foster (12-for-17), a newcomer who plays on the wing.
Redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, a perimeter player who also serves as KU’s small ball center, is the Jayhawks’ best finisher around the rim (30-for-45, 66.7%) thanks to the smart angles he takes and his willingness to go at defenders in the paint to finish over them.
Individual strengths and weaknesses aside, senior backup big Mitch Lightfoot said of KU’s problems with converting inside, “That’s on all of us.”
But then Lightfoot said both he and McCormack need to be better finishers.
“I think when guards get to the hoop we can use our athletic ability more and get a couple more dunks, which are pretty high percentage plays,” Lightfoot said. “If we can do stuff like that I think we’ll be OK and get back to what we should be doing.”
KU only had 16 dunks in its first 10 games and five of those came against overmatched Omaha. McCormack entered this week with just five successful dunks among his 84 overall field goal attempts.
Asked on Monday if there were ways to get McCormack more attempts at the rim, some immediately came to mind for Lightfoot.
“Yeah, I would say we’ve got to look at him on rolls to the hoop and stuff, and just get him easy lobs,” Lightfoot said. “It’s also on Dave and I — posting up closer to the hoop to get easier layups, where you’re shooting a 3-foot jump-hook instead of a 6-foot jump-hook.”
On a wider scope, KU could boost its rim scoring as a team just by zeroing in on a few areas. Self said Monday these Jayhawks, unlike many of his best KU teams, can’t throw the ball to a big inside and come away with two points. What’s more, Self said these Jayhawks haven’t yet found enough ways to throw lobs for dunks or layups, nor have they ran to score in transition off defensive rebounds.
Then there are extreme instances, such as early in KU’s home loss to Texas on Saturday, when the Jayhawks drove in for a layup and forced help. Any such attempt, Self explained, should be a good shot even if it’s missed, because a big man loses his defender to the help rotation, freeing the big up for an offensive rebound and easy putback. On the example Self referenced, it was McCormack who missed a wide-open dunk on the offensive glass.
“Those are the things that are correctable and aren’t that far off,” Self said.
The Jayhawks have all of January and February, as well as the Big 12 tournament in early March, to keep improving in many areas, including as finishers around the rim. There is time for them to continue to evolve.
If McCormack can alter his offensive approach, so that he’s only taking his shots from the lowest portion of the paint — a what would Dok do mentality — that would help. If he doesn’t have a great look on the catch, he has shown recently he is capable of kicking the ball out for a 3-point shooter or driver.
KU would likely benefit from Wilson taking an even more assertive approach, too, so that he’s getting more opportunities to score inside.
Agbaji and Grant-Foster are the most athletically gifted players on the roster, and KU’s guards need to push the ball whenever possible, so the leapers can inject some life into the offense on the fast break more often.
A lot of little improvements will help KU convert at a higher percentage around the basket. And the Jayhawks need to form those good habits in the weeks ahead, because a team that misses a ton of shots inside isn’t going to advance very far in March.
KU’s shots at the rim, through 10 games
Jalen Wilson: 30-for-45, 66.7%
Ochai Agbaji: 20-for-35, 57.1%
Marcus Garrett: 20-for-36, 55.6%
David McCormack: 14-for-30, 46.7%
Tyon Grant-Foster: 12-for-17, 70.6%
Christian Braun: 11-for-26, 42.3%
Tristan Enaruna: 7-for-9, 77.8%
Mitch Lightfoot: 5-for-6, 83.3%
Dajuan Harris: 2-for-4, 50%
Bryce Thompson: 2-for-8, 25%
Latrell Jossell: 1-for-1, 100%
Gethro Muscadin, 1-for-2, 50%
KU team shooting at the rim, first 10 games
Vs. Gonzaga: 13-for-23, 57%
Vs. St. Joseph’s: 17-for-29, 59%
Vs. Kentucky: 14-for-33, 42%
Vs. Washburn: 8-for-12, 67%
Vs. North Dakota State: 12-for-17, 71%
Vs. Creighton: 11-for-22, 50%
Vs. Omaha: 18-for-27, 67%
At Texas Tech: 10-for-14, 71%
Vs. West Virginia: 7-for-13, 54%
Vs. Texas: 11-for-20, 55%
Texas outplayed Kansas in every way imaginable Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, where one of the biggest swings in the No. 8 Longhorns’ dominating 84-59 victory came behind the 3-point line.
The No. 3 Jayhawks were non-factors from long range, connecting on a season-low three 3-pointers. Their inability to match the Longhorns’ energy in the top-10 battle proved as costly in this category as everywhere else on a day that UT buried 12 of its 26 shots from deep.
KU (8-2 overall, 2-1 Big 12) finished 3-for-23 from downtown, and the Jayahwks’ usually reliable shooters were missing what few shots they could find before the visitors began pulling away and KU started hoisting them out of desperation down the stretch.
“They got out on shooters,” junior guard Ochai Agbaji said after he went 1-for-6 on 3-pointers, making KU’s first of the game in the final minute of the first half, before the Jayhawks went 2-for-16 from beyond the arc in the second half.
Agbaji credited the Longhorns (8-1, 2-0) with turning KU shooters into drivers. But the problem was UT effectively made them one-dimensional, as the drives didn’t lead to anything else.
“We didn’t make the right adjustments in this game to counteract (UT’s initial 3-point defense),” Agbaji said, “and get the ball moving on our offense then.”
Before the team’s winter break, KU caught fire, hitting 16 of 37 3-pointers while beating up West Virginia. The Jayhawks opened the new year looking far less comfortable as shooters, and that’s because of UT’s personnel and approach. KU’s previous season-low for 3-pointers came against North Dakota State (4-for-15). But what transpired Saturday looked much more like KU’s 5-for-21 3-point night against Kentucky.
Three-pointers don’t look so open when the defender closing out is taller and longer, and can reach farther into that shooting window more quickly. UT’s defenders made those shots appear far less inviting. And they executed defensively to boot.
“They pre-switched a lot of stuff,” Bill Self said during his postgame video press conference. “I thought they did a really good job. They defended us a lot like Baylor did the first time we played them last year (KU went 4-for-15 that day in a home loss), and we didn’t really have any answers for them.”
Added Self: “I thought Texas did a terrific job guarding us the entire game, regardless of if it was 3-point shooting or not.”
As Agbaji pointed out, though, there are ways KU could have countered Texas’ superior 3-point defense.
“We just have to keep staying aggressive, not going away from the three-ball. But also looking at different things — taking it inside, getting fouled,” Agbaji gave as some examples.
KU doesn’t have the type of perimeter players to consistently beat their Texas counterparts one-on-one. The Jayhawks tried that route too often. The better option would have been something Self has tried preaching to them lately.
“We didn’t drive to pass at all. No matter how much we’ve emphasized it,” Self lamented.
The Jayhawks, who entered the game averaging 9.2 made 3-pointers an outing, could have created more quality looks for their best shooters — Agbaji, Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson — if they had attacked closing out UT defenders by driving inside while looking to kick it out, as Self has stressed of late.
There was no juice to anything the Jayhawks did on either end of the court versus Texas, with their 3-point shooting failing to give them boosts throughout a challenging matchup with the lengthy Longhorns.
And while it’s true some bad luck led to a handful of open 3’s rimming out — for Braun (0-for-5) in particular — there were too many cases where the Jayhawks weren’t willing to match the Longhorns’ defensive intensity with some inspired offense.
This KU team isn’t going to beat high profile opponents scoring so infrequently from long distance. This may not be an elite 3-point shooting team, like Self so often has insisted this season, but the Jayhawks have to get their fair share of scoring from beyond the arc. They don’t have to rain down 3-pointers on opponents game in and game out, but they need to cash in enough to keep defenses honest and create the spacing that will benefit drivers, as well as bigs when they get their touches inside, near the rim.
David McCormack can’t carry this team offensively — particularly against long and athletic front lines. And while Marcus Garrett is as good as a defender as you could hope for at the college level and a solid distributor, the senior entered Saturday’s game averaging just 9.4 points per game this season. It’s not wise to hope for an offensive spark out of him.
KU’s offense almost always needs to revolve around some combination of attacking and 3-point shooting from Agbaji, Braun and Wilson.
There was little fight to be found in anything the Jayhawks did versus Texas, however, including in the way KU defended UT’s 3-point shooting.
“That was a game where as poor as we played,” Self said, “they outscored us by 27 from the arc. And we can’t let that happen.”
Bill Self isn’t the type to coach one of his Jayhawks up to the point that the player is pretty good on the basketball court and call it a job well done. And that’s why Self is expecting more out of freshman Bryce Thompson in January, February and March.
The highest rated prospect in the Jayhawks’ 2020 recruiting class, Thompson has had his moments for Kansas through the first nine games on the schedule.
In his collegiate debut against top-ranked Gonzaga, Thompson scored 12 points off the bench and shot 5-for-10 from the floor, with a couple of steals, one block and an assist.
In the Jayhawks’ most recent win, the 6-foot-5 guard from Tulsa, Okla., scored all four of his points in the midst of a late second-half run that buried West Virginia.
As with most freshmen, though, there have been downs to accompany those ups. Thompson went 0-for-9 and finished scoreless against the defensive length of Kentucky. A few weeks back, during a rout of outmatched Omaha, Thompson went 1-for-8. It’s those two games in particular that are skewing his season shooting percentage — 37.5% from the floor — in the wrong direction.
Back to the positives, though, because this is a young player that just seems to be going through a cold streak of late (2-for-13 field goals, 1-for-6 3-point shooting in KU’s last three games).
Here’s what Thompson’s done well to date in a KU uniform, as Self sees it:
• “I think his defense has been pretty good.”
• “I think he’s been a good blend guy for the most part.”
• “I thought he shot the ball pretty well early.”
• “I think he’s made some plays that we had to have made at very crucial times — primarily the Creighton game.” (You may recall that’s the game in which Thompson replaced Ochai Agbaji in crunch time and made a key pass late.)
But his coach knows there is one area in particular where Thompson can provide the Jayhawks with much more, too.
“He hasn’t shot the ball well of late like he’s capable of — at all,” Self said.
Given the confidence with which Thompson (5.4 points per game in 17.4 minutes) carries himself on the court and the stroke on his jumper, his 5-for-19 (26.3%) 3-point shooting in November and December is one of the more surprising developments of the young season.
Agbaji, KU’s top marksman (24-for-54 on 3-pointers) entering Saturday’s game versus Texas, agreed that Thompson is a better 3-point shooter than he has shown in games so far. But Agbaji also praised Thompson’s ability as a scorer.
“Attacking off the dribble, I think his first step is one of his better attributes that he has,” Agbaji said. “His first step and the way he gets to the paint and plays off two feet is good.”
Mid-range jumpers aren’t for everybody, but Thompson does look comfortable firing when he’s open around the elbows. In the expanse of the floor between the rim and the 3-point arc, Thompson is 11-for-21 on the year, per hoop-math.com. His 52.4% accuracy on 2-point jumpers leads the team.
Eventually — and this may not come until he’s a sophomore or junior — KU would love to have Thompson scoring at all three levels. For the moment at least, just like most freshmen, he’s adjusting.
“I think the game is in fast forward a little bit right now for him,” Self said. “They have that expression: the longer you play the game the slower the game becomes. And I think the game right now is kind of in fast forward. It’s just a matter of time before he slows it down a little bit on the offensive end.”
Veteran big David McCormack thinks Thompson isn’t far away from delivering a breakout game.
“He’s right there. Bryce is one of those kids who kind of reminds me of myself,” McCormack said. “Harder, faster, stronger is kind of like his mantra. It may not be what he needs to do (at the time), but he always gives it his all.”
Self said Thursday Thompson "dinged" his back but was expected to be going at full speed by Friday. Prior to that, KU's coach has liked the way Thompson has defended and fit in. If the only knock on the freshman is the game is sped up for him right now, as Self said, that’s correctable. And it’s hard to knock a learning young player who is giving effort.
“I think the thing he’s done pretty well is be solid,” Self said. “But good players, sometimes solid isn’t good enough. And I think he’d be the first to tell you, he’s got a lot more that he can give.”
The first three words of Bill Self’s assessment on how the Jayhawks have defended around the rim through six games said it all.
“Not very good,” Self began, shaking his head.
The Kansas basketball season got started with top-ranked Gonzaga eviscerating the Jayhawks inside, and KU’s defense near the hoop hasn’t improved a great deal since then, hence Self’s disappointment.
With no interior intimidator this season, the No. 5 Jayhawks (5-1) have lost the battle for points in the paint against the three best teams they’ve played — Gonzaga dominated in that category, 62-34, while both Kentucky and Creighton, coincidentally, edged KU, 30-28.
The Zags (helped by their ability to race to 28 fast break points), went 29-for-37 on shots around or above the rim. Kentucky finished 11-for-19 at the basket. And Creighton converted 12 of its 16 point-blank attempts.
Per hoop-math.com, KU through six games is allowing opponents to take 36.5% of their shots at the rim. That rate ranks 177th nationally entering Friday’s games. Plus, KU’s foes are converting 59.7% of their shots around the rim, which ranks 178th.
Six games is a small sample size compared to full seasons, but so far this KU roster has done noticeably worse than recent Self-coached teams at keeping opponents from getting to the rim, as shown in hoop-math.com’s archive.
Here’s a look at the percentage of shots KU opponents took at the rim each year, going back to 2011-12:
• 2020-21: 36.5%
• 2019-20: 29.1%
• 2018-19: 28.7%
• 2017-18: 28.8%
• 2016-17: 32.6%
• 2015-16: 30.5%
• 2014-15: 34.9%
• 2013-14: 34.8%
• 2012-13: 28.4%
• 2011-12: 26%
With KU’s issues so far keeping players out of the paint, the Jayhawks’ defense is allowing opponents to shoot 42.5% overall from the field.
“We don’t block shots,” Self said. “And there was a time against Creighton where they get a reverse pivot backdoor layup, where (Christian Braun) gets beat and there’s absolutely nobody to challenge. I mean nobody,” Self repeated, his eyes widening in disbelief.
“I don’t think our rim protection has been very good at all,” he added. “So those are things I know we can tighten up and be better at.”
KU’s starting big man, junior David McCormack, isn’t a shot blocker, nor a defender who dissuades players from seeking out the rim. The Jayhawks’ best shot blocker this year might be senior Mitch Lightfoot, but he’s at his best protecting the rim when coming over to help someone else who got beat. And he doesn’t play many minutes (6.2 per game).
Or maybe KU’s best shot blocker will be junior Tyon Grant-Foster, who actually plays on the perimeter. Self chuckled when bringing up the long and athletic guard.
“Tyon against North Dakota State was probably our best rim protector,” Self said. “And that shouldn’t happen.”
Grant-Foster blocked two shots, including one in the final seconds of a 65-61 win over NDSU, and then blocked two shots in just four minutes versus Creighton.
No one on this roster will be able to come close to providing the type of defensive impact Udoka Azubuike had for KU when he was on the floor the past few years. If these Jayhawks want to make it harder for opponents to get to the rim, it will take playing connected, helping defense as a team. And there’s obviously time for them to keep improving in that area.
KU opponents’ shots around the rim
Gonzaga: 25-for-33 layups, 4-for-4 dunks — 29-for-37 (78.4%)
St. Joseph’s: 9-for-26 layups (34.6%)
Kentucky: 8-for-15 layups, 3-for-4 dunks — 11-for-19 (57.9%)
Washburn: 9-for-17 layups, 1-for-2 dunks — 10-for-19 (52.6%)
North Dakota State: 7-for-11 layups (63.6%)
Creighton: 11-for-15 layups, 1-for-1 dunks — 12-for-16 (75%)
For a team that scored at least 90 points and shot 50% or better from the floor in each of its first two games of the season, Kansas, surprisingly enough, actually could have left the Fort Myers Tip-Off with even better numbers in both categories.
The Jayhawks missed 10 layup attempts in their 102-90 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga, and then saw 12 more point-blank looks go awry the next day in a 94-72 win over St. Joseph’s.
Ahead of No. 7 KU’s Tuesday night meeting with No. 20 Kentucky in Indianapolis, Kansas coach Bill Self said every team is going to miss some bunnies here and there, but admitted some of KU’s misfires were unforeseen.
“Gonzaga, wow, we missed three or four that you would think would be, I mean, not automatics, but it’s a two-foot putt or three-foot putt,” Self said. “And I’ve missed plenty of those, trust me.”
Perhaps some season debut nerves got the better of the Jayhawks early versus the Zags, as David McCormack, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun each missed an attempt near the rim in the first five minutes. Overall, KU finished 13-for-23 (57%) on its high-percentage looks within a couple of feet of the basket.
Even Jalen Wilson, who has emerged early as a promising small-ball big, missed a couple within a minute span of the second half — though on the second misfire Wilson secured his own rebound and scored.
Against St. Joe’s, KU ultimately rolled with a five-guard surge in the second half. Yet on the day the Jayhawks converted on only 14 of their 26 layups (and went 3-for-3 on dunks).
Again, right off the bat, KU didn’t finish around the rim. Junior forward McCormack, who struggled in both games and is dealing with some leg pain went 0-for-3 inside in the first three-plus minutes alone. Two of those came on one sequence, as McCormack rushed a layup off an entry pass and then too quickly tried to tip in his miss.
Garrett, KU’s trusted veteran guard, even missed his first three layup attempts versus St. Joe’s. On one Garrett was blocked when he didn’t get enough lift off a spin inside. On another, he drove all the way to the rim but short-armed the finish.
Self said Monday morning missing more high-percentage looks inside than normal has at least something to do with KU no longer having an elite finisher such as Udoka Azubuike, who was “always playing above the rim” in recent years.
Even so, many of the 22 shots at (or below) the rim KU missed in two days last week were surprising considering the circumstances.
“We ran some stuff better than what the appearance was,” Self said, “because, gosh dang, it seems like we had it at two feet quite a bit and came away with nothing.”
Of course, with Kentucky up next on the schedule, finishing inside will be of the utmost importance for KU in its next high profile showdown. Between 7-foot senior center Olivier Sarr and 6-10 freshman forward Isaiah Jackson, the Wildcats (1-1) are far more athletic and intimidating inside defensively than St. Joe’s.
“With their length,” Self said, “and we don’t really play above the rim with our bigs as much, that length obviously brings in blocking and altering more into play (for KU players trying to finish inside).”
Here’s a look from hoop-math.com at the Jayhawks’ individual success rates around the rim through two games:
• Ochai Agbaji, 7-for-11
• Jalen Wilson, 7-for-11
• Christian Braun, 6-for-8
• Marcus Garrett, 6-for-10
• Tristan Enaruna, 2-for-2
• Bryce Thompson, 1-for-3
• Tyon Grant-Foster, 1-for-3
• David McCormack, 0-for-4
McCormack is capable of much better, in particular. Last year, as a sophomore, he converted 70.2% of his shots around the rim, going 40-for-57.
Even if the Jayhawks end up playing more five guard lineups, they need McCormack to make the most of the minutes he gets and score inside with consistency. Self has maintained, after all, that McCormack looked much better leading up to the season. The 6-10 junior just has to get away from the sped-up in-game sequences that popped up for him often earlier in his career.
As the Kansas basketball team strives in the months ahead to replicate the kind of success it had in the pandemic shortened 2019-20 season, the path to victories — and the math to get there — will look different.
More likely than not, the Jayhawks will take an egalitarian approach to scoring, rather than relying on one particular player to put the ball in the basket.
In the middle of discussing how KU might utilize sophomore guard Christian Braun offensively, Bill Self veered in another direction during a video press conference on Thursday, to highlight what looks to KU’s head coach like a balanced roster.
“I really could care less who scores on this team,” Self said.
That’s not an unfamiliar line of thinking for him. In Self’s 17 years at KU, it’s been rare for one player to dominate as a scorer. Only two have averaged more than 20 points per game over the course of a season: Frank Mason III (20.9 points in 2016-17) and Wayne Simien (20.3 in 2004-05).
Others have come close. Just two years back Dedric Lawson put up 19.4 points a game. In Sherron Collins’ junior season (2008-09) he averaged 18.9 points. And the what-if campaign that was last season concluded with Devon Dotson giving KU 18.1 points a night.
The Jayhawks won’t be able to rely on Dotson or Udoka Azubuike for scoring anymore. But that might not necessarily be an entirely bad thing if, in fact, KU can throw an assortment of scorers at opponents instead.
“You know what we’ve got to do? We’ve just got to play and let the open man basically take what he’s given,” Self said.
None of KU’s returning rotation players averaged more than 10 points per game this past year. Yet it doesn’t seem any of them will need to make a quantum leap as a scorer for the Jayhawks to play at the level Self wants.
Ochai Agbaji (10 PPG in 2019-20), Marcus Garrett (9.2 PPG), David McCormack (6.9 PPG), Braun (5.3 PPG) and Tristan Enaruna (2.4 PPG) all are basically locks to increase their scoring outputs. But none of them need to burden themselves with carrying the load.
“I see this being a team where, hey, some guys get eight a game, some guys get 12 a game and at the end of the game it adds up to 80,” Self said. “That’s what I’m kind of hoping for.”
The fewest points a leading scorer has averaged for a season under Self at KU is 13.3, and that came from Brandon Rush on a balanced team that won the 2008 national championship.
While it’s unclear at this point whether KU has that type of phenomenal run in it for the 2021 NCAA Tournament — fingers and toes crossed that March Madness actually happens this time around — it’s logical to look up and down the Jayhawks’ roster and forecast this year as one where Self has five players averaging somewhere between 9.0 and 13.0 or so points per game, just like he had with that championship squad.
Neither will need to be a primary scorer, but McCormack and Garrett look like the best bets to lead the team in points. Don’t be surprised if both of them average around 12 or 13 and Agbaji’s right in that range with them. Braun’s such a strong 3-point shooter, he could easily double his average from last year and provide another 10-plus points a game as a sophomore.
And if freshman guard Bryce Thompson comes in and adds another 9.0 or 10.0 points right off the bat, KU would find itself with some enviable balance, especially when considering the handful of other players who can chip in and/or have their own big nights from time to time: sophomore Enaruna, redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, junior college transfer Tyon Grant-Foster, fifth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot and redshirt freshman guard Dajuan Harris.
“I think we have a really good team,” Wilson said of KU’s balance, “with a lot of good players, a lot of versatile players. Any game it could be anyone’s night and I think we’re all on board with that. No one’s going and trying to say this is who does this or this is who does that. We’re all just playing together and we all do the same thing that we need to do to win.”
Plus, with Garrett as KU’s unquestioned leader this season, his team-first approach should influence the players around him. If a senior who will have the ball in his hands more than anyone else in a KU uniform doesn’t care about his scoring numbers, why should any of the other Jayhawks?
That’s easier typed than put into practice, of course. But winning will make it easier for players to not become overly obsessed with their stats. And the Jayhawks seem to believe a few weeks before the season that they can thrive with a diversified offensive approach.
“I think it’s hard for one individual,” Enaruna said, “to be really good scoring wise, because I think this team has too much talent. We’ve got too many guys who can score the ball and make plays. And I think the way coach wants to play, it’s not too much focusing on ourselves, but kind of forging all of those aspects together. Getting each other shots.”
In the past, Self has coached teams where certain players have to get touches or shots for them to play well, and those types of teams can run into issues when a go-to scorer is being harassed or shut down.
However, if he’s right about this year’s roster, KU shouldn’t have to deal with that particular problem in the 2020-21 season.
“I see it by committee,” Self said of KU’s scoring approach. “I really do.”
Life has a way of reminding people about what’s actually important and what’s ultimately of far less consequence.
On a Monday afternoon that many of us would’ve spent scrutinizing the still fresh NCAA Tournament bracket, and maybe even getting into occasionally heated debates about which teams could or should actually advance, many local media members dialed in to a teleconference to hear from Kansas basketball coach Bill Self.
The conversation, of course, had nothing to do with the Jayhawks’ upcoming path to a national championship, but rather the unforeseen and surreal way the postseason came to a conclusion before it even really got started.
The head coach of the No. 1-ranked team in the country spent plenty of time discussing how life has changed for his players and how the canceled tournament could impact what’s to come on a number of fronts. But Self diverted briefly to consider how sports actually might have played a momentous role in this country by getting people to recognize the seriousness of this COVID-19 pandemic.
“How big of a positive was it that Rudy Gobert tested positive?” Self said of the Utah Jazz center contracting the virus and essentially putting the entire NBA season on pause.
Gobert's diagnosis came this past Wednesday, which in its aftermath now feels like a month ago. The NBA suspending play became a tipping point for sports leagues throughout this country. And a worldwide story that might have seemed too far away for some in the U.S. to take seriously just a week ago suddenly became a lot more real.
Self marveled that sports as we know them getting wiped out actually became a driving force behind a movement, with more people paying attention to the virus and the possible repercussions of it spreading.
“I do think that could be a positive that came out of this — a very big one,” he said.
Indeed, this abnormal new reality for the Jayhawks and everyone else comes with some life lessons. According to Self, one that hit home for him is that everything is relative.
“No matter what we’ve got going on or no matter who we think we are, there’s always something more important actually taking place than what we’re doing,” Self said. “Sometimes we get caught up in our own world so much that we think what we’re doing is actually more important and affects more people than what it actually does.”
That’s been one of the most sobering aspects of existing in the sports world this past week. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be tied to the industry in one way or another have been reminded that the drama and intrigue surrounding sports may be captivating at times, but it lacks the gravity of these unpredictable days in which we now exist.
“I do feel so sorry for local businesses and people employed at local businesses,” Self said. “And how do they keep the doors open and stay in business? There are so many things going on in addition to health that it certainly got everyone’s attention. And I do think sports has helped create that.”
Maybe Self’s right, and this country is now a little further ahead of schedule in responding to this outbreak than it would’ve been without the sports world taking the lead. If sports helped just a little, it’s a nice reminder that they have the potential to make a far-reaching impact for good sometimes. Once in a while sports can be more than just a game.
It's normal for players on Bill Self’s Kansas basketball teams to wind up on All-Big 12 teams in March, but not once in his previous 16 seasons did Self coach a team with two stars so productive that either could easily have won conference player of the year.
Of course, that changed in year No. 17, thanks to Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
A 7-foot senior center, Azubuike ended up sweeping the Big 12 player of the year awards, earning the distinction from both the conference’s coaches and the Associated Press.
But that didn’t mean Azubuike was the obvious choice. AP voters gave the big man 10 votes, but seven went to his teammate Dotson, a sophomore point guard.
Azubuike intimidated on the interior, while Dotson reigned on the perimeter. They formed an ideal complementary duo and made up the driving force behind KU’s incredible 17-1 run through the Big 12.
Was one more responsible for the Jayhawks’ success than the other? You could make strong cases for either and still not convince someone on the other side of the argument. Ultimately, both sides are right, because the dominating center and high-speed point guard formed a reciprocal pairing that resulted in KU emerging as the top-ranked team in the country.
Self said earlier this week he never had before coached a tandem with such a hefty one-two punch that it was difficult to discern which player was actually better.
“Yeah, when we had Marcus and Markieff, they were hard to distinguish,” Self joked of the Morris twins. “From a postseason award standpoint, I don't know that we've had anything like this before.”
Just in two of the previous three seasons, Self coached clear-cut All-Americans in Frank Mason III (2017) and Devonte’ Graham (2018) who were obvious choices for Big 12 player of the year. The same was true earlier in the decade, with Marcus Morris (2011) and Thomas Robinson (2012). And even though Mason and Graham were teammates in 2017 and Morris and Robinson played together in 2011, there was always clear separation between those KU duos in those particular seasons. Robinson and Graham each stepped up to become “the guy” after a teammate with a key role moved on.
In Azubuike and Dotson, Kansas (28-3) has two of “the guys” entering the postseason together.
Self thought the only time KU could have had a somewhat similar scenario was 2014, when the Jayhawks’ top two freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, went on to become two of the top three picks in the draft. Of course, that combo never got to realize its March Madness potential, as Embiid suffered a season-ending injury late in the regular season and KU lost as a No. 2 seed in its second game of the NCAA Tournament.
Azubuike and Dotson are more likely to become two of the top three picks in the second round of the draft, but they’ve turned into highly effective college stars. The Jayhawks haven’t benefited from the presence of such a valuable pair of players since the year before Self arrived. In 2003, big man Nick Collison and fleet-footed guard Kirk Hinrich took KU all the way to the national championship game.
Azubuike and Dotson are the most impactful Kansas duo since, and exceptional enough in this college basketball season that they could take the Jayhawks one step further — and maybe help deliver KU its first national championship since 2008.