Another nail biter for KU on Tuesday, an improbable four-point win over Oklahoma after trailing by ten (and looking dead) with about 5:00 left. KU went over 11 minutes without hitting a field goal. ELEVEN MINUTES! Oklahoma was loose and focused.
Then KU got a dunk. Followed by two offensive boards and a 3. Bill Self found a way to turn Oklahoma’s defensive strategy of face-guarding Gradey Dick against them and suddenly KU was scoring on every possession. It also helped that OU took three terrible shots as the Phog Allen pressure clearly got to them.
Through four conference games, KU has now come from double digits down twice, and were down by seven in another win. Heartburn city.
I had to laugh in the days between the games Saturday and Tuesday at how a few KU fans were saying this team was better than last year’s. That seemed a little premature, especially since West Virginia and Texas Tech might both stink. Tuesday’s performance showed that this year’s team has plenty of flaws that can be exposed.
In my view, last year’s team had a much higher ceiling because Ochai Agbaji could always go get a bucket and David McCormack could (generally) be relied on for getting at least a late-in-the-shotclock look near the basket.
Jalen Wilson, DaJuan Harris, and Kevin McCullar can all get to the hoop, but not as efficiently Ochai could. Where he could get past people and explode to the rim, each of this year’s trio need either an angle or open lane to reach the hoop. Jalen throws in some tough-ass shots, but since he might have a negative vertical he can’t always capitalize the way Ochai could.
This year KU has no true inside presence, although they are finding ways to get those looks as the season goes on.
Of course, last year’s team didn’t have Gradey Dick, maybe the best pure shooter Self has had. Tuesday Gradey showed that he is a freshman, as he struggled to get free from OU’s defense. Self will find some ways to manufacture more looks for him over the next few weeks. But, right now, Dick is not a player who can get himself free when he has the ball. To his credit, he has a very good hoops IQ and will usually move the ball or try to drive when he is covered. Being able to take those 2–3 hard dribbles and rise up is a skill I think he’ll add next year. Unfortunately he’ll be doing that in the NBA and not Lawrence.
I’ve been banging this drum for years, but it seems like the college basketball media is finally figuring out how good Self is at finding ways to get his teams easy chances to score. The Texas Tech and West Virginia games were perfect examples. Playing bigger, stronger teams, Self found ways to spread the court, invert the offense, and still get his players looks at the rim. It helped that KU started both games red-hot from behind the arc, which opens everything up.
Those shots were also there against Oklahoma; the Jayhawks just missed them. One reporter counted 19 misses at the rim. I added two more on bad offensive foul calls that took away baskets.
Bill Self does a lot of things really well. His greatest attribute, and the one that explains his success over his career, is how he always finds ways to generate easy shots. Whether it was high-low when he had multiple bigs, spreading the court in the years he had multiple shooters, the outside weave to create attacking lanes for players like Agbaji and Josh Jackson, or pick-and-roll with Devon Dotson/Marcus Garrett and Udoka Azubuike.
The last two years he’s opened up the offense, if not going totally “positionless,” at least going to a highly interchangeable look. DaJuan Harris is one of the most productive point guards in the country, yet he doesn’t dominate the ball because it is always moving and anyone who gets a rebound can bring it up the court.
Monday a reporter asked Self about his willingness to be flexible and he gave a fascinating answer. Without talking about causes (both changes in the game and pressures on recruiting because of the NCAA investigation), Self said he has completely changed how he recruits.
In the past they would look for guys that fit their system and particular roles. If a big man was leaving, he was looking for a 5-man. Wing rotation is thin? Find a couple new ones.
Now, though, he said he and his staff are more focused on seeing what they have and catering their offense around that combination of skills. In general, he wants athletes that can shoot. But if that means he ends up with a bunch of 6’7” guys and no effective big man, they will find a way to make that work.
While that’s obvious to anyone who watches KU, it is also a pretty remarkable admission. A lot of coaches who have been around as long and had as much success as Self have a hard time moving away from the what made them successful. Bobby Knight might be the ultimate example. Yet Self has embraced the changes in the game and kept his teams rolling.
Let’s talk about KJ Adams for a minute. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a total transformation of a player in such a short amount of time. Six weeks ago he barely took any shots, and generally missed them if they weren’t dunks. He was a terrible free throw shooter. He seemed to just be occupying the 5 spot until one of his taller teammates earned enough of Self’s trust to take over the job.
As we move into mid-January and the heart of the conference season, he has scored in double figures nine straight times. Since November 28 he’s shooting 85% from the line. He’s still not a great defensive rebounder, but as Self also said this week, he’s often keeping the opponent’s best big man off the boards, allowing Wilson, McCullar, and Dick to clean up.
Last season someone Tweeted after KJ had a nice few minutes something along the lines of “Wait for it, DaJuan Harris and KJ Adams are going to start every game for the next three years because Bill Self is in love with them.” This person was kind of joking, and the implication was that KU would basically be playing 3 on 5 on offense because neither player really looked to score.
Today it would surprise me more if KJ wasn’t a starter as long as he is in Lawrence. Just an amazing change in fortunes.
I also must share that I’ve been pretty laid back through these opening Big 12 games. Sure, I was yelling a lot in the Oklahoma State game, caught up in the emotion of that comeback.
But Tuesday I was pretty resigned to losing. I wasn’t pissed, as in “FUCK, how are we losing?!?!” the way I would have been in the past. It was more of a “Fuck, I can’t believe we are losing.” Winning the national championship has changed my stress level significantly. At least for now.