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.
As Bill Self said after Saturday night’s Kansas basketball win over Oregon State, those who witnessed the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks’ 82-67 win at Sprint Center saw the very best and the very worst of KU.
At least Self’s team, now 8-1, saved the entertaining portion for the final act. After scoring just 28 points in the first half and trailing by 11 at the break, the Jayhawks broke out of whatever funk they had contracted in Kansas City, Missouri, on Saturday and shot 21-for-32 in the final 20 minutes, when Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason III, Devonté Graham, Perry Ellis, Hunter Mickelson and Carlton Bragg played all of the meaningful minutes.
Self spoke in the days leading up to the Oregon State game about wanting to shorten his rotation, taking every opportunity he could to remind people how difficult (almost unreasonable) it is to play six big men. So we could’ve seen KU relying on eight or nine players instead of giving every player in the top 12 a shot when possible. After seeing Oregon State (6-2) easily handle the various lineups KU threw at the Beavers in the first half, however, Self took it to the extreme and stuck with his starting five and Bragg instead of mixing and matching. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of that decision was the exclusion of KU’s typically trusted bench scorers, Brannen Greene and Svi Mykhailiuk, in the second half. Self made a point to show the players — and the fan base — that if certain guys are working better than others, he doesn’t mind keeping valuable players on the bench if that’s what it takes to get a win.
Now, will Self go to this extreme again? That will be something to watch in the weeks to come.
Three reasons to smile
1. Hunter Mickelson made the most of his on-the-court job interview. Self admitted he hadn’t given his senior big man much of an opportunity to prove himself this season but that changed against Oregon State. Self seemed back to his old ways of preferring just about any big man but Mickelson in the first half, playing him only 4 minutes despite giving him the start. But Mickelson was so active early Self had to play him more in the second half and Mickelson responded with a 7-point, 6-rebound effort in 14 total minutes. One of the things Kansas has lacked since the days of Jeff Withey is a rim protector, and Mickelson gave KU a little of that, too, with 2 swats.
2. Wayne Selden Jr. continued his ridiculous offensive tear through the non-conference. As he started showing this past summer at the World University Games and continued to do to begin his junior season, Selden proved he has more confidence as a scorer now than he ever did during his first two seasons. Selden knocked down 5 of his 8 3-pointers against the Beavers, bringing his running season total to 30-for-50 (60% from deep). His 22-point effort upped his scoring average to 16.6 points. Selden now seems as reliable a scorer as Ellis — which no one would’ve thought headed into this year.
3. The Jayhawks handled Oregon State’s defensive pressure. Led by Gary Payton II and his 23 steals entering the game, OSU averaged 7.8 swipes before facing Kansas. The Beavers only came up with 2 takeaways against the Jayhawks, who had 11 turnovers in the win, and Payton left with a goose egg in that category (though he played well enough to put up 13 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists). It’s difficult for opponents to take the ball away from KU when guys like Mason, Graham and Selden are handling the ball.
Three reasons to sigh
1. Likely the best NBA prospect on the Kansas roster, freshman big man Cheick Diallo didn’t play a single minute in the second half vs. Oregon State. Self considered using the 6-foot-9 freshman instead of Bragg, but thought Diallo couldn’t switch screens well enough on the perimeter to give KU the defensive look the coach wanted to implement. As a result, a big who many considered one of the most talented freshmen in the country coming into this season only played 7 minutes, scoring 2 points and pulling down a pair of rebounds. Diallo hasn’t yet reached his potential. A major reason for that is he’s just behind everybody else, due to the NCAA fiasco that kept him from playing early in the season. So when you sigh about Diallo, remember there are certainly better days ahead for the KU big man from Mali, Africa.
2. KU beat Oregon State in points in the paint, 34-28, but that number could have been much bigger. In the first half in particular, the Jayhawks struggled to finish inside. Drew Eubanks, a 6-foot-10 forward, just played active, smart defense around the rim and the Jayhawks, as they often have the past couple of years, failed to score over length. Kansas missed 9 layups in the first half — reminding everyone that Kansas can still run into scoring issues when its opponent has length inside.
3. Kansas still hasn’t become a great rebounding team, a characteristic that typically goes with winning basketball games. KU edged OSU 32-31 on the glass. To look at it another way — the way Self says he prefers — Oregon State missed 31 field goals and 6 free throws. That equals 37 opportunities for a defensive rebound. KU came away with 24 defensive rebounds — that’s a defensive rebounding percentage of 64.8%. For KU to continue to grow (and get more opportunities to push the pace with its three guards), the Jayhawks need to start controlling the glass.
One for the road
KU’s win over Oregon State…
Made Kansas 2-0 against the Pac-12 this season and 196-73 all-time vs. teams from the Pac-12
Made KU 28-6 at Sprint Center and 213-80 in games played in Kansas City
Improved Bill Self’s record at Kansas to 360-79.
It’s fall semester finals time, so the Jayhawks get a full week off from game action before returning to Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday for a 1 p.m. meeting with Montana, which apparently will double as a gigantic ugly sweater party.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Oregon State
- Less is more: Shortened rotation propels KU
- Column: Carlton Bragg makes his case for minutes
- Oliver Luck admits Cheick Diallo case dragged on
- Jayhawks improve to 28-6 at Sprint Center
- Unexpected lift not enough for Oregon State
- Jayhawks bounce back in K.C.
- Keegan Ratings: Frank Mason keys KU comeback
When Kansas University junior forward Landen Lucas contemplates the quantity and quality of big men in KU’s basketball program right now, he almost can’t believe it.
The Jayhawks rarely lack in the depth department down low. Now entering his fourth season in Lawrence, Lucas (who red-shirted his first year) has played alongside or practiced with interior contributors such as Tarik Black, Joel Embiid, Kevin Young and Jeff Withey in the past. Still, the 6-foot-10 Lucas said the 2015-16 KU roster is more crowded in the front court than any he has seen.
“It’s weird to say that,” Lucas admitted earlier this summer, “because I feel like the last couple years we’ve had that kind of depth. But this year there will be an insane amount of people who have either started here, started at other schools — Hunter (Mickelson) started at Arkansas — mixed in with (high school) All-Americans.”
Indeed, KU seniors Perry Ellis (71 career starts), Jamari Traylor (19 starts) and Mickelson (25 starts in two seasons at Arkansas), like Lucas (14 starts), know what it’s like to be one of the first five on the court. Even 6-9 junior Dwight Coleby, who will sit out this season after transferring from Ole Miss, has seven career starts.
Plus, Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff brought in highly touted freshman big men Cheick Diallo (Rivals.com’s No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2015) and Carlton Bragg (ranked No. 21 by Rivals).
If the NCAA Eligibility Center clears Diallo to play, upon completing its review of his academic records from Our Savior New American High, in Centereach, New York, the Jayhawks will have six players available to use at power forward and center.
Lucas said just four big men in a rotation allows for aggressive play in the paint. He thinks the collective assertiveness of the front court should only improve with more options.
“Hopefully it will get people to go out there and play hard,” Lucas said. “If you go out there and you don’t, there’s somebody who’s ready to come in and do that.”
Each available big figures to bring something a little different to the floor.
The 6-foot-8 Ellis can score in a variety of ways.
Also 6-8, Traylor is quicker than most big men and has shown the ability to use that to his advantage.
Thus far a backup at KU, 6-10 Mickelson looked like a steady rim protector, as well as an effective scorer and passer as the Jayhawks won gold medals at the World University Games this summer.
And Lucas might be the best defensive rebounder among the veterans.
Without Bragg and Diallo making an immediate impact, though, the Jayhawks will only have a comparable version of last season’s front court. If the two rookies prove game-ready, KU could drive opposing teams mad inside.
While playing in South Korea this summer, the 6-9 Bragg showed he can run the floor, play with toughness and knock down open jumpers.
Diallo, meanwhile, might be the exact kind of player KU lacked this past season. The 6-9 big man is expected to play with manic energy on the defensive and offensive glass, protect the rim and compliment Ellis’s scoring inside.
Mickelson said transitioning from the high school ranks to high-major college basketball is different for every player, and although getting acclimated can be difficult, Bragg and Diallo shouldn’t have too much trouble. Freshmen, Mickelson added, usually can pick up drills and plays quickly enough, but KU’s veterans will be sure to remind them about other aspects of the game, such as body language or how to approach different situations.
“There’s just little tweaks and stuff like that that you can point out to help them,” Mickelson said.
In June, before playing in the World University Games, when asked what his weaknesses were, Bragg replied “everything.” The humble freshman’s point: he wanted to improve as much as possible every day. Bragg said KU’s veterans help him stay positive and let him know what to expect.
“They’re getting me ready, mentally,” the young big from Cleveland said. “Going through what they went through their freshmen, sophomore years, how coach was getting on you.”
Traylor already seems convinced Bragg will fit right in at KU, noting Self has said as much in complimenting Bragg’s feel for the game.
“But as far as natural stuff and natural athletic ability and instinct,” Traylor added, “he’s gonna be great for us.”
Because KU only has two newcomers inside, Traylor said it will be easy for the veteran Jayhawks to take Bragg and Diallo under their wings. It won’t be like the past couple seasons, when KU had first- and second-year players all over the floor — inside and out.
“We’re pretty much an old team now, so things are pretty much going quick,” Traylor said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
Thursday marked the very unofficial start of the college basketball season at Kansas University, where Bill Self and the Jayhawks went through media day at Allen Fieldhouse.
Self provided some insight on what’s to come in the months ahead for KU, as well as some of the shortcomings that impacted last season, and what he, the coaching staff and the players learned from those experiences.
• KU has three smaller point guards. He doesn’t know yet what the norm will be. Kansas needs more ball-handling and play-making from its lead guards. That position didn’t play as he hoped in 2013-14. Wayne Selden, a bigger option, could play point with two big wings or Frank Mason or Conner Frankamp or Devonté Graham could be out there running things.
• The Jayhawks could be very versatile this season. Self sees them playing small a lot, but could play Kelly Oubre or a bigger wing player at the power forward.
• Junior forward Hunter Mickelson is a “prototypical” four-man. He faces up. The challenge will be for him to play bigger than he is. Self can’t see anybody beating Perry Ellis out for power forward minutes. With Mickelson’s skills, he’ll have to do some more things to see playing time. He is the team’s best shot-blocker. Mickelson blocked more shots than Joel Embiid did last year in his last season at Arkansas.
• Self likes who Ellis is. He doesn’t want to get him too much out of his comfort zone in some aspects. Ellis won’t be a vocal leader. Leading by example involves doing your job. If Ellis adds a little leadership to his repertoire, it will make KU a lot better. Self wants Ellis to go score. That’s who he is.
• Brannen Greene has really improved. He was very talented last year, too, and didn’t play much. He is in a loaded position, with Selden and Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Greene is arguably as good a shooter as Kansas has. He still has to buy into guarding on the other end.
• So far Mykhailiuk is transitioning great. "Svi" understands the language maybe less than Joel Embiid did when he first arrived. The only knock on Svi is he is young. He is going to be really good. His youth could be a factor in how much he plays. A defender could knock him off his line pretty quickly. He may have played against the strongest competition, among current KU players, in his international experience.
• Alexander can be a physical player. He will have to learn how to guard and pick his spots. Self sees some similarities with Thomas Robinson and Alexander. Alexander has to get where he goes after every ball. If he plays his best and everyone else does, too, Alexander should be their most physical player.
• Without seeing this team going up and down a lot yet, Self doesn’t know for sure what the team and some young individuals will look like. But Devonté Graham is a well liked guy that pushes the ball up the floor and is certainly capable of challenging for starting minutes. Graham reminds him of Aaron Miles. He is a leader and can make a shot. His intangibles will probably allow him to play more immediately. The Marines who worked with the Jayhawks picked Graham as the best leader. But Oubre and Selden will be leaders, too.
• The Jayhawks need to be better defensively than last year. They “stunk” last season on defense. Embiid could cover up mistakes. They don’t have that this year. But Self expects KU to be better defensively.
• KU has a lot of things that will be good for recruiting, with the DeBruce Center and McCarthy apartments and new locker room renovations.
• Self used to do more micro-managing when he was young. Now that he is older he doesn’t think as much about things that don’t impact wins and losses, such as where guys sit in a locker room and things like that.
• Mason didn’t guard last year like he can. Graham can pressure the ball. Svi can slide his feet and anticipate defensively, he is so quick and athletic. Jamari Traylor does some things with pressure and running the floor, as well. Self isn’t a big press-defense advocate. You play a style that gives you the best chance to win in the postseason. When you play good teams they have good guards, and good guards often love to see a press. Full-court pressure won’t be a staple.
• Landen Lucas might have had as good an offseason as anyone. He is fighting for major minutes.
• Frankamp, in high school, was a volume shooter, as most high school stars are. Then he only got a few looks as a freshman and he felt like he had to make them. His whole play was based on whether he made a shot. Strength has been a factor for him some in the past, but he can help the team in other ways, besides shooting the ball. He had to make shots for minutes the way it played out last season. … Frankamp has to get stronger. Everybody has something they have to get better at. Strength and shooting are key for Frankamp becoming great.
• Self learned something through “The Program” they went through with Marines. KU has some guys who are really good at what they do and they don’t want to take away from who they are. Kansas needs Graham and Selden to be leaders.
• Selden, Self thinks, needs to play more consistently and knock down more shots from three-point range.
• It is hard for Self to make a complete evaluation of Oubre yet. And Oubre is good enough that he won’t be at KU very long. He can do some things that a lot of wings don’t typically do. He is a talented player.
• You always think about a starting five before the season begins. Whether he will tell anybody publicly right now is another thing. Guys have to earn it. By Big 12 play, Self has a team in mind but a lot has to do with how fast the young guys pick stuff up.
• Top to bottom, this Kansas team reminds him a little bit of the 2008 team. That team’s best player was Brandon Rush and he went in the NBA lottery. That team had pros. This is a team like that, there isn’t a top-three pick right now, but KU has a whole bunch of good players and depth. There isn’t much size, but they are skilled and deep. A lot of balance.
• There isn’t hoopla this year like they had with Andrew Wiggins, who handled it well. But KU has players that will be as good at the college level as Wiggins and Embiid. Kansas has more guys who can impact the college game this year.
• Self doesn’t know who would be a candidate to red-shirt this season. Right now he doesn’t think it will be a possibility.
• Late Night is always big for recruiting. It is big for the players, too. Guys look forward to it. Last year there were some issues with getting people in and those have been resolved. Only twice has KU had to turn people away, Self’s first year and last season.
• Self may talk about last year’s NCAA Tournament performance with this year's players. But that team wasn’t truly who the Jayhawks were. That team on the floor wasn’t a No. 2 seed. They didn’t have Embiid. That could be their motivation, to not let that happen again this coming postseason. But sometimes unexpected things just happen in sports. They didn’t have a lot of margin for error last season.
• Looking at the All-Big 12 preseason team, Self was surprised that not one of KU’s players got a vote other than Ellis. “That may be something that we tell our guys.”
• KU might be picked to win the Big 12 when those predictions come out. But Texas could be a top-5 team nationally and plenty of other teams appear to have top-25 talent.
• With the personnel KU had last year, the Jayhawks weren’t as tough as a typical Kansas team. The staff didn’t do a good enough job fixing that. Coaches will emphasize toughness this year. Personalities and youth probably had a lot to do with that last season.
• Just a bit off topic, on the Kansas City Royals… It’s awfully cool to watch. It’s fun to see guys having the time of their lives. They had the fastest guy in baseball (Jarrod Dyson) dancing at third base in extra innings on Tuesday and he hadn’t even scored yet. That’s cool. Self gets a kick out of all the strategy, too. The Royals are really good.
— Listen to the complete press conference: Self talks 2014-15 expectations at media day