Examining the potential impact of KU basketball playing 2 big men
It might sound odd, coming from KU coach Bill Self, but one of the biggest challenges facing the current Kansas basketball team is how to incorporate more big men into the offense.
Go ahead. Take a moment. It's important to have your head on straight before reading further.
Yes, the coach who has done more with power forwards and centers on the offensive end than just about anybody during his college coaching career is at a point in this wild and crazy modern era of small ball and guard-heavy offenses that he actually is in search of new ways to put two big men on the floor at the same time and have them both produce and benefit the Kansas offense.
A big reason for that is the presence and emergence of freshman forward Silvio De Sousa, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound specimen who joined the Jayhawks a few of weeks ago and has played four and seven minutes in his first two games with the team.
Only a couple of times in that 11 minutes did De Sousa actually post up and ask for the ball. But there's more of that ahead, according to Self. And the KU coach flat-out said he was “excited” about the idea of incorporating De Sousa into the offense and having the newcomer out there alongside 7-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike, KU's fourth leading scorer (14.5 points per game) and the nation's leader in field goal percentage (.781).
“It's hard to practice a way that you know you're not going to play for three weeks,” Self said, referencing the wait for De Sousa to become eligible after transferring from IMG Academy at semester. “So he comes in. We didn't say, 'OK, we're going to play two bigs now,' because we knew he wasn't going to be ready to help us for a period of time. I think he's at the point now where we can get him more minutes.”
What that means exactly is a work in progress and remains to be seen. But with KU's big man rotation now up to three players, instead of just two, Self can tinker with the idea of putting De Sousa and Azubuike out there at the same time, with sophomore reserve Mitch Lightfoot ready to back them both up. Or, at times, it could be Lightfoot out there with one of the two true bigs. That, of course, will be dependent on matchups and how each player is performing. But all of a sudden, KU does at least have options.
Although he may not elect to start games that way or even play more than 10-15 minutes per night with the new look, the whole idea is more in line with what Self expected would be the case before the season even began.
Back at Late Night, when asked about his team's outlook for the season, Self said he envisioned playing big 70 percent of the time. A couple of weeks later, that number dipped to 50 percent, but Self still maintained that he wanted to play big at least 20 minutes a game.
It hasn't happened. Really, it hasn't even been possible until now because the Jayhawks have operated all season with just two big men and have had to use Azubuike and Lightfoot as interchangeable parts — as much as a 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward can fill in for a 7-foot, 280-pound center, that is — instead of as complementary players.
Both have done an admirable job of holding down the KU frontcourt while waiting for help.
With help now on campus — and KU still hoping that Billy Preston will be cleared to play in the not-too-distant future; nothing new there, though — Self plans to get back to his old ways and run at least some of KU's offense through Azubuike and De Sousa instead of being so perimeter-oriented.
“We're going to spend every day playing with two bigs, practicing with two bigs, and we haven't done that all year so it's going to take a while for the others to get comfortable,” Self said. “When teams pressure out, like West Virginia did, a lot of times your pressure relief is throw the ball to the big. We need to be able to do that more.”
Azubuike said after the West Virginia victory on Monday that he had been “constantly” talking to De Sousa in an attempt to help him along. And De Sousa said Thursday that Lightfoot had helped him the most of anyone thus far.
Clearly, getting to the point where they can play with two bigs is important to the Jayhawks and Self said he was thrilled, though not surprised, to see the trio working so well together in preparation for potential time together on the floor.
“I've always thought the more you care about others, the more it helps yourself,” Self said. “The more unselfish you are with your time and knowledge or whatever, all it does is come back to you. I wouldn't be surprised if that's the case with Dok.”
Beyond that, Self said having another big body on the floor with Azubuike would open things up for both players. The biggest and most obvious way this would happen is by isolating one or the other in the post, while the other sets a high ball screen.
With deep position and space, the player posting up could take a quick pass from the guard using the ball screen from the other big man and have plenty of room to operate in a position that is less than favorable for defenders.
That action, and others like it, are all about execution, which is why KU remains a couple of weeks away from fully unleashing this idea while the guards and bigs continue to drill it and get comfortable operating this way.
“He would benefit from having another guy out there to take the pressure off him, and I think he probably sees that,” Self said of Azubuike. "I'm not in on their talks over in the dorm or anything like that, so I don't know to the extent, looks like to me Mitch has been the best guy to help Silvio, and you would think if Mitch helps Silvio that could impact Mitch more than it could Dok.”
How about how it might impact the rest of the team? Freshman guard Marcus Garrett offered an immediate answer to that question.
“A lot with rebounding,” Garrett said. “Two bigs will make it a lot easier to rebound than with four guards.”
And, to date, that has been De Sousa's biggest and most obvious contribution. Although he didn't grab one in four minutes against K-State, it was not for lack of trying, and he got three against West Virginia, two offensive. He seems to already understand that whether he's scoring points or not, he can make a difference on the glass.
“I think he's strong,” Self said. “I don't think anybody is going to push him around, so physically that is obviously a bonus.”
As for how De Sousa, who is used to being the biggest guy on the court, feels about the idea of teaming up on the floor with a true 7-footer who actually is bigger than him? Saying he's excited is probably an understatement.
“That would be crazy,” he said with a grin. “Udoka, like even during practice when I'm with him on the court on the same team, we just be going hard against the other guys and I think I would love to experience that in an official game.”
It's coming. Early February remains the unofficial target date, but don't be surprised if you see it sooner than that.