Monday, February 24, 2014
Planning for Success: KU's offense
By Eamonn Brennan
By now, a handful of the notions advanced in November and December about the 2013-14 Kansas Jayhawks look hilariously quaint. No, this isn't the season Kansas will finally relinquish its stranglehold on the Big 12 regular-season title; the Jayhawks are 12-2 with a three-game lead on Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas with just four games left to play. Yes, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are really, really good. No, the Kansas offense isn't too stagnant to be relied upon.
All these and more were driven home in Kansas' 85-54 annihilation of Texas on Saturday. But it's the last one -- about KU's offense -- that is especially worth dispelling in advance of Monday night's visit from Oklahoma (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), because against some odds, it is the Jayhawks' offense that will define their season.
Joel Embiid and the rest of the Jayhawks have risen above the Big 12 fray offensively, putting Kansas on the verge of a 10th consecutive conference title.
The offense-or-lack-thereof critique was the most noteworthy at the time. In late November in the Bahamas, Villanova held KU to 59 points in 71 possessions. A day later, Kansas escaped UTEP 67-61 in 64 trips. Colorado limited Kansas (72 points, 67 trips) effectively in its Dec. 7 win in Boulder, and Florida held Kansas to 61 points in 64 possessions in Gainesville later that week.
And then came San Diego State. The Aztecs' win in Lawrence -- the first nonconference win by any team in Allen Fieldhouse in 68 games -- was a 65-possession, 61-57 clinic in how to make the Jayhawks look pedestrian. SDSU raced back in transition, crowded all available driving lanes, prevented clean post entries, and essentially begged Kansas to beat it from outside. Kansas couldn't.
How often does a team score .94 points per trip and win at Allen Fieldhouse? At the time, that performance was a sign of how far behind Bill Self's unusually young team seemed. The Jayhawks could overpower inferior foes with sheer talent, but against smart, athletically capable defenses, their offense could be made to stall.
That hasn't been remotely true since.
The Aztecs were Kansas' last nonconference foe. Since Big 12 play began, the Jayhawks have averaged 1.19 points per possession -- more than Wichita State has scored against the Missouri Valley. Only Duke and Creighton, the two best offensive teams in the country, have been better in conference play; Louisville is close. All three have a larger selection of stats-inflating bottom-feeders in their leagues. Save for TCU, Kansas has had no such luxury.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about KU's offense is how good it has been despite its willingness to give the ball away. Kansas is turning the ball over on 18.1 percent of its possessions in conference play. This is actually an improvement from earlier in the season, when that number was up around the 22-percent mark. And it's still way too high, and it still basically doesn't matter, because Wiggins, Embiid, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis are still eschewing 3s and finishing interior buckets more effectively than any team in the country. As we saw on Saturday -- and are likely to see again Monday night against the Sooners -- the Jayhawks have done far more than "figure out" their offense. They've thrived.
Perhaps the place Self's atypically advanced development timeline has shown up is on defense. In the past decade, no coach has churned out top-10 efficiency defenses as reliably as Self; the Jayhawks' adjusted defensive efficiency rankings from 2007-13 range from No. 1 to No. 11, and usually tend toward the former. This season? No. 27. The last time a Kansas defense was just merely good -- because let's keep things in perspective -- was 2005.
For anyone who watched Kansas during this historic nine-year run of Big 12 supremacy, the makeup of the 2013-14 team has been a little jarring. Here we have a brilliant Jayhawks offense that doesn't shoot the ball all that well from outside, turns it over a bit too much, and is still brilliant all the same playing out in front of a defense that is uncharacteristically not amazing. It's a different formula, one Self has invented on the fly. But it's working, and pushing Kansas ever closer to a remarkable 10th straight Big 12 title, all the same.