Defensive Keys to Surviving the First Weekend without Embiid

Kansas gave up 94 points to the Cyclones in their eliminating loss on Friday. That is the most points the Jayhawks have allowed in a game that did not go to overtime in the Bill Self era. In the 4 games Embiid has sat out, KU has given up nearly 77 points per game. That is up from their season average of 70.5 points per game. What’s more disturbing is that KU is giving up over 45% from the field in their last three games. Their season average is 42%. As has been said here all year. This is a very average Kansas defensive team. They are slightly above average with Embiid, and they are certainly slightly below average without him. Since the 2008 season KU teams have given up an average of 64 points with a defensive FG% of 38%. That means this KU team has shown a 11% increase in scoring allowed.

The next disheartening fact for Jayhawk fans is this: Of the last 5 national champions, only one has given up more than 65 points per game on average (72 by UNC in the 2008-2009), and only one has given up over 40% from the floor to their opponents (41% by UNC in the 2008-2009). The average points allowed per game and defensive FG% for the last 5 champions has been 63 points and 39% respectively. Those numbers are 11% and 7% better than KU this year.

Now that we have established that this team’s defensive woes are a problem when put into historical context, let me add this: The last 5 national champs have average 78 points per game and shot 46% from the field on average.  Kansas is sitting at 80 points and 50% from the field. However, scoring is up about 6% or so this year over the past few years making any edge KU has over past champions’ offensive production fuzzy at best. The bottom line is this: KU is not so much better offensively than the competition they will face in the NCAA tournament to get away with defending like it has so far this season. If the Jayhawks don’t guard with consistency the way they guarded in their last meetings with Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma State, they have no shot to win the NCAA championship. 

Joel Embiid only played in one of those games, the win over Texas. He only saw the floor for 21 minutes in that contest. KU can do this without him, although they are obviously better with him in the game. Here are some things I think KU needs to try in order to survive to the second weekend where they might be reunited with their 7-foot rim protector.

1. Play with unbelievable energy. KU is at its best defensively when they come out locked in and jacket up on that end of the floor.

2. Double team the post every single time. Iowa State’s Niang absolutely embarrassed every KU post defender that tried to match up on him. None of KU’s post defenders are solid enough to go it alone. KU should bring help on every touch inside. Otherwise, get ready to watch somebody else carve their interior up.

3. Pressure passing lanes. KU has been decent at on the ball and first shot defense, but they never make the opponent look uncomfortable. How do you do that? Get out into passing lanes early and often. Pressure the ball so that entry passes become a risky gamble. These things speed offensive players up and make them feel uncomfortable in their sets.

4. Full court pressure after every make. In my opinion pressing in college basketball is way underutilized. I am talking about a man-to-man press with trapping options in the  far corners and just past half court. If pressing doesn’t result in a steal or turnover, it usually costs a team ~40% of the allotted shot clock before they can really settle into their stuff. It also speeds teams up. They get rushed to break the pressure or escape a trap and then they let that speed carry over into their offense, rushing shots and making bad decisions. This type of pressure almost single handedly won a game a Kansas State this year.

5. Don’t be scared of junk defenses. What did Texas Tech to do KU to nearly win the game down in Lubbock? They used junk defenses and they changed the looks constantly. KU doesn’t have to be so extreme, but I am all for them coming out in some alternative defense after every timeout. Opposing coaches know Kansas will be in man defense in these scenarios, and they scheme to score against it. Mix it up and cause some confusion. Also, KU shouldn’t shy away from gimmicks like triangle-and-two or box-and-one defenses if a matchup in the tournament spells problems for their man-to-man options.

Bill Self has said that KU wont change what they do or who they are for any opponent. I would argue that this team is not an accurate reflection of who KU historically is defensively, particularly without Embiid in the lineup. In March you have to do what you have to do to survive and advance. And, in my opinion, KU has to do something on the defensive end and they have to do it in a hurry. We are at T-minus 4 days.