Basketball can be SO frustrating! We know great play when we see it, we know what effort looks like, and we can see when a strategy works (and when it doesn’t). For example, take the current KU squad and compare it to past Jayhawk teams.
We have seen great performances by many Kansas teams and countless individual players. For some people, a shorthand reference is all that’s needed to recall these. T-Rob’s block, Collison’s standing-o from Vitale, Mario’s Miracle, Danny and the Miracles, the Big Dipper, Jo Jo’s foot, and Phog, just to name a few. It is against these teams, these players, and these coaches that all Jayhawks are judged.
Kansas basketball is elite; a Blue Blood, so to speak, and as such we are accustomed to being the dominant team. Not just in winning, but also in controlling the style, tempo, and rhythm in any game we play. We make the other team adjust to us, and sometimes, that’s where the frustration comes in.
Jayhawk fans remember games when we haven’t been in control. Sometimes this is due to KU player’s lack of execution, sometimes it’s due to KU’s game-plan, sometimes it’s due to the opponent’s game plan, and sometimes it’s because the other team is (this is REALLY hard to say) better.
In the second round of the 1992 NCAA tournament, the Don Haskins-coached UTEP team (a 9 seed) defeated the Roy Williams-led KU team (a 1 seed). In the final few minutes of practice before facing KU, Haskins installed a “four corners” spread offense they hadn’t used before in order to control the tempo of the game. Kansas was not ready for this. Time after time, UTEP fed one of two guards driving the lane from the high post, and KU adapted no in-game adjustments to stop the rain of layups.
Over the years, Coach Self has developed a style of play that has proven successful. We are all familiar with it. Joe Posnaski describes the overall style as having three main themes. First, convince the KU players to play tough. Second, convince the players that if they play tough, they will be really good. Third, convince the players that winning by playing tough is what KU does. Jesse Newell describes in more detail KU’s offensive style as also having three main points, each of which aim to capitalize on Self’s belief that ‘the easiest shot in the game is the layup’. First is the big-men getting angles inside. Second is moving the ball side-to-side to break down the defense. Third is scoring quickly in transition.
Coach Self’s style of play includes particular types of players that fill particular roles within the system. There’s the “Strong Big” – the guy who acts as the last line of defense in the shot blocker role and as the low-post for the offense to run through. There’s the “Athletic Wing” – the lock-down defender zeroed in on the opponent’s biggest outside scoring threat is also expected to be able to create their own shot. There’s the “Strong Wing,” the one that’s supposed to be able to drive to the basket and be a physical defender down-low when needed. There’s the “Floor General” that brings the ball up and gets the offense started. There’s the “Three-point threat,” the “Energy Guy,” the “Production Off-the-Bench Guy,” the “Team Leader Guy,” the “Experience Guy,” and others we’re probably not even aware of.
Over the course of a season, each player learns what particular roles they may be able to fill and what they need to do to get on the floor. The alternative is that they don’t learn or can’t execute, by riding the pine. They can then become the “Disgruntled Guy,” the “Positive Support Guy,” the “Forgotten Guy,” or the “Wait-Till-Next-Year Guy.” Sometimes we discover that a very talented player doesn’t really fit into any of the systemic roles at all, and they become the “Transfer Guy.”
In some years, all of the roles in the system are filled superbly. Others, however, not so much. This year the role of the “Big” isn’t filled with a dominant KU player in the same way as it has been in the past, and that role is even thinner now with the unavailability of Cliff Alexander due to an NCAA eligibility issue. However, the role of the “3-point-threat” has multiple players who could fill it successfully in any given game. Coach Self abhors “softness” of any kind, and this label appears to apply to trying to beat a team by out-shooting them with 3’s. He’s recently started calling reliance on making 3-pointers as “Fool’s Gold,” and this likely plays some role in the late season shooting slumps of KU’s 3-point threats.
There will be teams in the NCAA Tournament that KU can out-tough and beat with Self’s preferred approach, and the potential match-ups in the first three rounds appear to fit that category. There will also be teams KU could face and never defeat with toughness and driving the ball inside. One of these teams in particular has already beaten KU by 32 points. They may or may not feature Platoons or Inside the Paint host Daniel Cunningham’s favorite coach of all time.
I have a dream of a fantastic NCAA Tournament this year. A two seed doesn’t meet a one seed until the Elite Eight, and Bill Self won’t change his game strategy for any normal team. If KU manages to reach the regional finals by executing its well-rehearsed approach, it will likely face an undefeated Kentucky team. Coach Self surely remembers what happened in that first meeting; all KU fans do: blocked shots, getting out-rebounded, shooting 19.6%, and the lowest point output in the Bill Self era. All of these are related to trying to out-tough Kentucky by taking the ball inside.
Perhaps a lesson from Coach Haskins would be in order, and a complete new game plan installed on the offensive end for a second matchup with Kentucky. Maybe one that capitalizes on KU’s three-point threat. Would Kentucky be prepared for a KU team like that? Would John Calipari and his players be able to adequately adjust? Perhaps yes and perhaps no, but the outcome of that game would be less predictable. By blindsiding and stunning its opponent, maybe, just maybe, Kansas can roll to the Final Four with a win of epic proportion! We all know stranger things have happened in the NCAA Tournament, so why not?
Don Haskins is a Naismith Hall of Fame coach with a National Championship under his belt. Bill Self will be a Naismith Hall of Fame coach with at least one National Championship to his name. Today, the difference between them seems to be an ability to clearly see, and to fully accept, that sometimes, a last minute change of course is needed to take control of a situation.
Let’s go win #6.
1. “’92 Squad Holds Special Place in UTEP Basketball History”; utepathletics.com; Feb 6, 2012; http://www.utepathletics.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/020612aab.html
2. “The Genius of Bill Self”; Joe Posnaski; March 15, 2013; http://www.nbcsports.com/joe-posnanski/genius-bill-self#page=1
3. “KU’s offensive success goes back to simple Bill Self mantra”; Jesse Newell; October 24, 2014; http://cjonline.com/sports/2014-10-24/kus-offensive-success-goes-back-simple-bill-self-mantra