A Bad Mix: High-Low Offense and This Year’s KU Squad

The Jayhawks have lost three of their last six games, and in each of those defeats, they’ve failed to register more than 63 points. There’s no denying that offense is a problem for Kansas right now. Aside from Perry Ellis, it lacks a truly consistent scoring threat, and relying on the three-point shot as much as this team does is asking for disaster with a one-and-done tournament coming up.

In previous years, Kansas basketball under Bill Self has revolved around the high-low offense. Despite the fact that Self is known as a defensive-minded coach, this system has been a big success, as it has led to 10 straight conference championships for the Jayhawks. This scheme revolves on ball screens and a “weave” style of pass from guard to guard until an opportunity opens up in the low post. Self teams tend to play through their big men, and the high-low offense is a well-oiled machine when Kansas has the size and scoring ability in the paint to shoot a high percentage and bleed the shot clock down before scoring each possession.

However, Self’s current team is not built for this system. There are several reasons why the future-Hall-of-Fame coach’s game plan of choice hasn’t worked particularly well thus far in the year.

The high-low revolves around one big man that can consistently have his back to the basket and be seen as the “scoring threat.” That man should be able to make a quick move, or expect the double team and be able to pass it off quickly. While Perry Ellis is a fluent scorer, he’s not as athletic as the model player in this position typically is, and he’s not big or strong enough to be able to fight through double teams.

Kansas needs a forward that can attack off of a quick pass or step out. Ellis is a great example of this position. However, KU is running offense through him as the top man when he needs to be a secondary post option. This is why he had so much scoring success last year when he was complemented by Joel Embiid; it led to an impressive 55% FG from then-sophomore Ellis. This season, despite the fact that his overall points-per-game mark is up, his shooting percentage is much lower than it has been at any point in his career. Despite the fact that he’s had success in the last several games, there are doubts on if it can continue through a tournament run.

The lack of a rim protector will be Self’s ultimate downfall. Cliff Alexander has great length and leaping ability, but he consistently seems lost defensively and has shown very slow footwork. If he develops lateral quickness, he could dominate with his size, like Rico Gathers does with Baylor. For now, though, he gets bullied in the low post defensively by less-athletic players, and thus spends a large percentage of the time on the bench.

Bill Self cannot run the high-low style offense with this team. This team can obviously shoot well from the outside, so it’d be interesting to see what Kansas would like if they shot more than 30% of their field goals from three-point range. The Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in three-point shooting at over 40%, but they’re taking fewer than three out of every 10 shots from deep. On the contrary, one could look at the contest with Kansas State last week where “living by the three” ruined Kansas, as it went just 2-11 from long range in the game. It failed to make a three-pointer in the last 29:30 of the contest. Shooting more threes may be better for this particular team, but it’s much riskier than the style that Self has used in the past.

Self needs to adjust to a more motion-based offense and use his team’s perimeter size to his advantage. This means playing more Cliff Alexander. For example, no player on the team besides Mason and occasionally Graham can take a man off the dribble. This team isn’t particularly good at handling the basketball, which is why they should look to move the ball around with safer passes instead of riskier “90 mph fastball” chucks across the court. If Kansas can have more movement away from the ball, it could create size mismatches, which would lead to easier inside shot. For a team that’s struggling as much as Kansas is to get any offense from big men not named Perry Ellis, this would be key. The Jayhawks need Cliff Alexander to get going if they want to make a run in March, and switching up the primary offense could be exactly what the doctor ordered.

This may appear to be Self’s worst overall team since he arrived at Kansas, but with minor adjustments, it could have a lot of success. Even without the size typically involved with a Bill Self team, it comes down to hustle and awareness on both ends of the floor. The Jayhawks have the talent to be great and make a deep run, and I’d like to see them make something of it.