Well, that didn’t go as planned.
Duke topped Kansas in the Champions Classic, 68-66, Tuesday night after Kansas turned the ball over a ridiculous 28 times. Despite this, KU kept the game close and built a pretty big lead early in the second half. In the end though, it was a McCormack bounce pass that was intended for Doke (note: it was the correct idea, but it happened too slow) that was intercepted and ultimately iced the game for Duke.
Per usual after a loss, KU Twitter was alive and active with hot takes and overreactions to a game that is ultimately meaningless. One of the biggest criticisms was that KU’s two big lineup should not continue. In my humble opinion, this is patently false. While the two big lineup could use some polishing in terms of decision making, it was not to blame for the loss. In fact, the guard play was just as bad if not worse than the bigs. So many times KU had fast break opportunities ruined because the pass to the man in transition was too slow, allowing Duke to force the TO.
One of the criticisms I saw of playing two bigs is that it clogs up the lane for guards to drive. This could be true I suppose, until you realize that the KU guards were getting to the rim with ease against Duke. Almost all of Marcus Garrett’s 12 points came from drives to the rim and scoring/getting fouled. Most of Dotson’s points were also drives to the rim. KU should have been driving more. Duke could not stop them. The whole point of the playing two bigs is to run a high-low offense in which the bigs get double-teamed every time they touch the ball, leaving a guard open for a shot or a drive. If they don’t get double teamed they should be able to score easily. These plays were there last night. The bigs just missed them. And no, playing two bigs is not out of date or old fashioned. The high-low offense is still perfectly viable if the bigs have good recognition of the open man. This will come with time.
KU fans also seem to forget history is on the side of playing two bigs. The best teams Self has had are the teams that played two bigs. KU won a national championship in 2008 with bigs Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson. The 2011 Jayhawks were the most dominant team in college basketball before getting upset in the NCAA tournament. That team had the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson. The following year, KU went to the title game through Jeff Withey and Robinson.
Even last year, KU came in as the #1 overall team and proceeded to beat Michigan State (who ended up going to the Final Four), Marquette and Tennessee (both of which were tournament teams) playing two bigs in Udoka and Dedric Lawson. In other words, KU was really, really good until Udoka got injured and KU was forced to play four guards around Dedric Lawson. These teams that played two bigs all had something in common. They were all really good defensively. Generally, they weren’t the high scoring teams that we have seen with KU in 2017 and 2018 that were efficient offensively, but less so on defense.
I personally think fans have fallen in love with the high scoring brought by a four-guard line up, and that is part of the reason why they are so quick to jump ship from two bigs. However, last night showed that playing two bigs is still good for defense. Just think about it. KU had 28 turnovers and Duke still only scored 68 points. I honestly thought McCormack did pretty well on defense if he got switched onto a guard. As we saw last year with Virginia and Texas Tech, strong defenses can get a team to a title game.
It’s also important to understand that this was the first game of the season. It took 28 turnovers for KU to lose by two to the No. 4 team in the country. Most teams won’t have a Matthew Hurt, who is a nightmare to guard. The basketball IQ of the big men will improve as the season goes on. Offensively, the bigs will get better at recognizing the open man when they are inevitably double-teamed. The plays were there Tuesday night. If you watch the game again you will see that the guards were open when the pass was made to a big man, but the big men just missed them.
If Self really thought playing two bigs would be an issue, he wouldn’t have played them together most of the game. I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s doing, so let’s stop pretending we know what’s best for this team. We saw flashes of how good this team can be when KU went on a 14-0 run in the second half. It was pretty obvious that KU beat itself against Duke. KU is going to beat a lot of teams this year. There is a lot to be excited about.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong about all this. But I don’t think so.