Because no two sports seasons are alike, every season seems weird.
This Big 12 basketball season is no different. The weirdness this year comes from Baylor winning in Lubbock and Lawrence the first week of the season, not stumbling elsewhere, and the league race seeming to be locked up early.
The math changed a little last night when KU was absolutely dominant in the final eight minutes to steal a win in Morgantown, a long-time house of horrors for the Jayhawks.
West Virginia never looked great Wednesday, but when they took a nine-point lead midway through the second half, it felt like one of those nights when KU would fold under the Morgantown pressure and the Mountaineers would romp to an easy win.
Until KU played like it was 2018 again.
Steals, timely threes, and ridiculous defense late turned a nine-point deficit into a nine-point win.
And all of a sudden it feels like there’s an actual race for the Big 12 title.
Some of that is just the afterglow of a big, road win. KU is still, effectively, two games behind Baylor. But that margin seems scalable when you look at KU’s stats.
They are the highest scoring team in Big 12 play. They are the best field goal shooting team in the Big 12. Going into last night, they had the highest 3 point percentage in the conference (which seems crazy…). They are also the top adjusted offensive efficiency team in the league according to KenPom. And the KenPom ratings have KU as the very best adjusted defensive team in the country.
All done against the most difficult schedule in the nation.
It’s been easy to focus on KU’s flaws this year. Some of that is just because that’s what us KU fans do: we compare our team to the other top four, five, whatever teams in the country and pick at where we are lacking. This year it is, clearly, outside shooting. We kept hoping it would get better, but here we are in mid-February and nothing has really changed. There’s no reason to think it will.
I think there are things Bill Self could do to give his shooters better chances. For some reason he rarely runs the little fade-screen for a three in the corner, the play that Tyrel Reed made a living off of back in 2011. But when he runs it for Isaiah Moss, the kid almost always knocks it down. Both Moss and Christian Braun get swallowed up when asked to find a shot within the normal KU perimeter offense. While all that action is made to get openings for cutters or entry passes, it makes it very difficult for shooters to get spot-up opportunities. I think Self should run the fade-screen a few times each half. If Moss and Braun can start knocking down a couple shots a night – as Moss did Wednesday – that opens so much up for this offense.
That criticism stated, I think Self deserves a ton of credit for seeing his team’s limitations and tweaking the offense to still get them scoring opportunities. Most teams should feel safe sagging off shooters, clogging the lane, and generally mucking up KU’s offensive plans. Yet all that perimeter action opens lanes for Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett to drive. And while the team is not nearly good enough at throwing the ball inside to Udoka Azubuike – seriously, he should get way more touches – they usually find a way to get him involved. It is remarkable how many layups and dunks this year’s team gets, basics that college defenses should be able to stop. As much as Dotson struggles from 3, he balances that by getting to the rim and finishing better than just about any KU point guard I can remember.
And the defense…it has been unbelievable. Where it is tough to stop both Dotson and Azubuike on the offensive end, it is similarly difficult to beat both Garrett and Dok on the defensive end. And the defense is getting better. Dotson has been getting more steals lately. Ochai Agbaji is beginning to lock people down. They are learning to not just guard their men, but smother the opponent as a defensive unit.
For all the team’s flaws – outside shooting, passing, not great ball handling – they have stumbled onto a formula that can help them climb back into the Big 12 race and make a deep run in March. Just a little more efficiency on offense – and that means Agbaji and Dotson knocking down 3–4 deep balls combined each night or Moss and Braun getting more consistent from outside – and suddenly KU looks like the clear best team in the country.
I can’t get too excited about that prospect, though. Once every 4–5 games KU gets hot as a team from behind the arc. The next game they are ice-cold and remain that way for several games. All they need us that middle ground, but I think that’s too much of an ask for this squad.
Winning the Big 12 still seems like a huge hurdle. KU could absolutely win in Waco, but as dominant as Baylor was in their first meeting that will require a huge effort. Even then KU needs to win in Lubbock and not slip up in Manhattan. Manage that and KU will still need some help. West Virginia is tough, but I don’t know that their offense is good enough to beat Baylor. And the Bears just don’t look like a team that’s going to blow a stupid game over the next three weeks.
Still, in a year filled with strangeness there is plenty of time for more wackiness.