March 29, 2013: The day KU broke Bill Self.
The Jayhawks had just blown a 14-point lead to lose in overtime to Michigan. The Sweet 16 loss ended KU’s season, sending Kansas into a murky offseason that would lead to a reconstructed team. Just six weeks later, superstar small forward Andrew Wiggins committed to play for Self and the Jayhawks. Wiggins’ versatility gave Self his best athlete in years, but it didn’t change the fact that KU’s 2013-14 roster should never have played the same way the 2012-13 squad did. Whereas the “vintage Bill Self” teams relied on elite defense and high-percentage close-range shots in the paint, Self tried to force his athletic, Wiggins-led team to play through its bigs, rather than play through the strength of its best player. This would have required more three-pointers, more transition opportunities, and fewer throw-in passes to the big men.
The end result? Despite having two of the top three picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, Kansas lost 10 games, and failed to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The next year, Wiggins was replaced by Kelly Oubre, another athletic wing that had exceptional quickness, explosive potential, and great positional height. KU lacked a dominant big man, but Self opted the Jayhawks to play through its bigs. While Perry Ellis was double-teamed, games came down to the performance of Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor, and Cliff Alexander. The ending result was nearly identical to the year before: nine losses and another second-round tournament exit.
Self’s 2014-15 team was his worst two-point shooting team in 12 years at Kansas, yet he stubbornly elected to adjust his coaching style. On the other end of the spectrum, this Jayhawk team was Self’s best three-point shooting team, and it wasn’t particularly close. The Jayhawks’ 38% team percentage from long range was at the top of the conference. Brannen Greene, for a time, was the best three-point shooter in the country. In all, the Jayhawks had a whopping six players average at least 35% from beyond the arc, yet Self continued to scoff at the idea of relying on threes to win games. He called three-pointers “fools gold.” He insisted the importance of playing through your bigs, but again, with Ellis double-teamed on nearly every possession because KU lacked a competent complement to him, the Jayhawks’ offense sputtered in the tournament.
Here we are just days into the 2015-16 college basketball season, and Self once again possesses a dangerous potential weapon in an array of three-point shooters. Yet as Kansas sputtered down the stretch of Tuesday’s loss to Michigan State, the game looked identical to many losses from the last couple of years. Greene, who made 5-of-5 threes in Friday’s opener, was benched for the entire second half. So was Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, KU’s other sharpshooter. The Jayhawks scored just 13 points in the last nine minutes of the game, failing to run anything resembling an offensive play. Instead, Self watched as Lucas and Wayne Selden hopelessly clanked shot after shot right off the rim.
Kansas finished 13-for-33 on layups. Once again, the Jayhawks got the shots that Self coaches his team to play for, and they couldn’t make them.
During the second half, Selden, a 37% three-point shooter last year, missed a shot from long range. At the next timeout, cameras caught Self barking at Selden, presumably expressing displeasure over shot selection.
Kansas was running out of time and desperately needed to make threes, and Greene and Mykhailiuk remained on the bench. Neither got on the floor in the second half. As a result, the Jayhawks made just one three-pointer after intermission.
This is ridiculous. Shooting threes is the strength of this KU team. In Friday’s blowout win over Northern Colorado, the Jayhawks shot 26 threes, making 15 of them (58%). Three-point field goals accounted for 43% of Kansas’ shots, and as a result, it scored 109 points.
On Tuesday, the Jayhawks shot 15 threes, making just three (20%). Three-point field goals accounted for just 23% of Kansas’ shots. KU scored 46 fewer points than it did on Friday night.
Three-point baskets may make Bill Self uncomfortable, but for Kansas to reach its ceiling and play as well as it did on Friday, the Jayhawks must take at least 20 three-pointers every game. Brannen Greene and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk taking a combined zero threes is completely unacceptable. When Cheick Diallo is cleared, Self can work in more plays that run through KU’s centers. But right now, Diallo isn’t available, and KU doesn’t have a single center that resembles a scoring threat. What they do have is a collection of three-point shooters, two excellent passing point guards, and the ability to spread the floor and get open looks on the perimeter.
For now, Kansas must play through its two biggest strengths: Perry Ellis and its three-point shooters. And doing so all starts with Bill Self.