Kansas City, Mo. — Winning the program’s 13th consecutive conference championship — by four games, no less — veteran Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham will tell you, was not easy (see: KU’s average margin of victory of 5.5 points in league play). Still, Graham also doesn’t mind sharing the Jayhawks enter the Big 12 tournament at Sprint Center virtually worry-free.
“Coach (Bill Self) keeps telling us there’s no pressure on us,” Graham, the Big 12 tourney’s reigning Most Outstanding Player, said Wednesday. “We just gotta go out and play. Just try to validate what we did in the regular season and come out and just play with a free mind.”
No. 1-ranked Kansas (28-3) knows how to do that by now, after winning all three games following their regular-season crown. That’s why no one should misinterpret Graham’s assessment that this team won’t — and shouldn’t — stress about the outcomes of this weekend’s games. The Jayhawks have big plans for the rest of the month, and what they accomplish in Kansas City will impact the fashion in which they enter the NCAA Tournament.
Graham said he and his teammates should have fun at the Big 12’s postseason showcase, because doing so also will fuel the players going forward.
“We don’t have Josh (Jackson) tomorrow, so guys gotta step up,” Graham said, referencing the one-game suspension of KU’s freshman star, “and we just need everybody to come from this tournament with a lot of confidence on the floor.”
A 6-foot-2 guard from Raleigh, N.C., Graham never lacks boldness on the floor, but he seems to be improving his offensive output just in time for the postseason, having nailed eight 3-pointers in KU’s final two regular-season wins (4-for-8 in each). And he definitely buys into the idea of Kansas gaining speed, strength and positive energy for March Madness.
“We get these couple wins and win the (Big 12) championship,” Graham said, “I think it’s big momentum going into the NCAA Tournament.”
An All-Big 12 second-team selection averaging 13.2 points and 4.3 assists, Graham knows Kansas should be prepared for whatever it sees and whomever it faces this weekend, due to the competitive nature of the conference and the round-robin schedule.
“We actually got a lot of people saying, ‘Why aren’t you blowing teams out?’ And it was just because a lot of the teams that were at the bottom of the league,” Graham would retort, “were really good teams. And it’s hard to play away from home. And we just found ways to win.”
KU opens the 2017 postseason Thursday afternoon (approximately 1:30 p.m., ESPN2) against TCU, which beat Oklahoma 82-63 Wednesday night.
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.”
A little less than three weeks into the season, the No. 4-ranked Kansas basketball team has shot just 35.5% from 3-point range. Dozens of games remain to be played and it’s a small sample size, but that rate of success marks a noticeable dip from last year, when the Jayhawks had more shooting threats on the roster and hit 41.8% from downtown.
As many likely expected, three KU players have emerged as the top long-range shooters for the 2016-17 campaign: senior Frank Mason III and juniors Devonté Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk — the three top returning shooters for a program that lost Wayne Selden Jr., Perry Ellis and Brannen Greene as outside options.
So who will emerge as the top marksman on the Jayhawks’ perimeter? Depends on whom you ask.
“Obviously everybody can shoot,” Mykhailiuk responded. “You know, last game Frank was five-for-five from three, 100 percent. Every game’s a different game and different guys hit shots.”
As the wing from Ukraine referenced, Mason couldn’t miss in the rout of UNC Asheville on Friday, improving his accuracy from beyond the arc to 48% thus far.
So is Mason the Jayhawks’ top sharpshooter? That Bill Self character probably has an opinion on the matter.
“Yeah, Frank’s shooting it really well,” Self said. “But you guys get so hung up on what happens in one game against North Carolina Asheville. I mean, in the big scheme of things that really doesn’t matter. I’d rather see what happens consistently over a seven- or 10-day period. And certainly I think we’ve got multiple guys capable of having big nights like Frank did the other night.”
OK, the head coach doesn’t want to single one guy out. So what does surging sophomore guard Lagerald Vick think?
“Svi. Hands down,” Vick said without hesitation.
“Even on bad days he still is a good shooter,” Vick replied. “Coach always get on him when he’s not jumpin’ on his shot. You know he can make shots. I watch him shoot a lot. I get techniques from him. He’s definitely the best shooter on the team.”
Mykhailiuk has knocked down 11 treys, one fewer than Mason’s team-best 12 to this point. But it’s hard to ignore Graham as a top option. Even though he’s off to a slow start (32.4% from deep), Graham led Kansas in 2015-16 with 75 3’s on the season while draining 44.1%.
As far as Self is concerned, any number of his players are capable of being considered the best 3-point shooter in crimson and blue.
“I would say if we were having a HORSE contest, I’d say Svi. But depending on game situations and things like that, then Frank’s pretty good,” Self added. “But Devonté’s good, too. I won’t quite put Lagerald (Vick) and Josh (Jackson) in that group, but I think they could become, at any particular game, could be our best shooter in the game.”
Vick and Jackson have only made seven 3-pointers between them this year, so they definitely can’t lay a claim to KU’s unofficial shooting crown.
Still, Vick considers joining that conversation one of his goals. He noticed upon reviewing game footage earlier this season a tendency to fade backward some on his jumpers. So Vick has made a point since to stay straight up and down when he rises up for a release.
“I’ve been stayin’ in the gym, just workin' on my jumpshot, lookin’ at the film and stuff,” Vick said, “so that should help me catch up with those guys.”
Personally, I’d cast my vote for Mykhailiuk as the best Jayhawk from deep. He shoots with the form Vick is trying to mimic and has that feathery touch on his release that convinces you the ball will fall through the net each time it leaves his hands. Plus, at 6-foot-8, he doesn’t have to always put so much of his body into his longest attempts.
What’s more, Mykhailiuk, who shot 37-for-92 (40.2%) while playing just 12.8 minutes a game as a sophomore, said he feels good about his shot and thinks he’s better this year.
“I think I’m more confident,” he said, “and I get more open looks.”
— Below is a look at how each of KU’s rotation guards has shot from 3-point range through six games.
Mason: 12-for-25, 48%
1-for-5 vs. Indiana
0-for-1 vs. Duke
1-for-4 vs. Siena
3-for-6 vs. UAB
2-for-4 vs. Georgia
5-for-5 vs. UNC Asheville
Mykhailiuk 11-for-27, 40.7%
2-for-5 vs. Indiana
0-for-3 vs. Duke
2-for-4 vs. Siena
4-for-5 vs. UAB
1-for-6 vs. Georgia
2-for-4 vs. UNC Asheville
Graham 12-for-37, 32.4%
- 2-for-6 vs. Indiana
-1-for-6 vs. Duke
0-for-3 vs. Siena
4-for-9 vs. UAB
3-for-9 vs. Georgia
2-for-4 vs. UNC Asheville
Jackson 3-for-12, 25%
1-for-3 vs. Indiana
1-for-2 vs. Duke
0-for-0 vs. Siena
1-for-4 vs. UAB
0-for-0 vs. Georgia
0-for-3 UNC Asheville
Vick 4-for-17, 23.5%
1-for-3 vs. Indiana
0-for-4 vs. Duke
0-for-1 vs. Siena
0-for-3 vs. UAB
0-for-2 vs. Georgia
3-for-4 vs. UNC Asheville
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.