Defensive woes won't derail KU's Final four path

January 27, 2017, 2:31 PM

— -- Kansas is 18-2 and ranked No. 2 in the nation, and Bill Self has the Jayhawks on track for their seventh No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament during his tenure. However, Self is unhappy with his team's defense, and relative to the standards expected of a Jayhawks D, the numbers bear out the coach's concern.

But I have a suggestion: We might need to stop talking about this season's Kansas team in the same familiar ways that we've talked about Jayhawks teams in past seasons.

Instead of tapping our feet impatiently and waiting for KU to buckle down and start playing some traditional Kansas-level defense, we might have to accept this season's Jayhawks for who they appear to be: UCLA, only with a way better defense.

Self will never agree to such an attitude adjustment, of course, nor should he. Just the opposite: He'll die a thousand defense-loving deaths every time his team wins a game 90-88 (as the Jayhawks did against Kansas State) or 87-80 (Oklahoma State).

Fine, but we aren't Self. Besides, is the high-scoring standard of "UCLA, only with a way better defense" really such a bad thing? Or is it a pretty fair plan of attack for winning the national championship in April?

I'm on the record?as expecting that KU will do just that. But now I'm adding the additional prediction that the Jayhawks will win the title and drive their coach crazy every step of the way.

Why the drop-off in defensive production?

We look at the court at Allen Fieldhouse, the KU uniforms and indeed many of the same players from last season --? Frank Mason III, Devonte' Graham, Landen Lucas, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Carlton Bragg, etc. -- and we think: Self will figure it out. Great defense is just around the corner.

Well, maybe it is, but so far, it appears that Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden were way better and more singularly important on defense than we ever expected. This season, the 6-foot-5 Selden has been replaced on the wing by the 6-foot-8 Mykhailiuk, while the 6-foot-8 Ellis bequeathed his position to a player of the same listed height, Josh Jackson. Meanwhile, Mason, Graham and Lucas are all back at their previous spots, without having shrunk or grown visibly since last season.

If anything, this defense is slightly longer than it was last season. So why the huge drop-off in results?

Last season, KU held Big 12 opponents to 41 percent shooting on 2s. So far this season, that number is 48 percent. No team's fans will applaud a change that drastic -- Self certainly won't stomach it without a fight -- and so here we are, waiting for one of the best offenses in Division I to start playing better defense.

Is that a realistic expectation? Yes, within reason.

Self has a track record of in-season defensive improvement

Naturally, 2-point defense isn't the sole criterion of how well a team is playing on that side of the ball. In the case of Kansas, however, it has tended to be a pretty trusty benchmark.

In Big 12 play, KU has forced more turnovers than the league average just once in the past decade. It's not a priority of Self's, and that hasn't prevented the Jayhawks from being consistently outstanding on defense. As for defensive rebounding, this year's team is more or less matching what we saw in conference play from Kansas in 2015-16. Lastly, KU is recording its fourth consecutive season of better-than-average work in terms of denying 3-point opportunities to Big 12 opponents.

Which brings us back to 2-point defense. Starting with the national championship team of 2007-08 and running through last season, we've seen nine Kansas defenses come and go. I drew a line across each of those seasons after the eighth conference game (where we are now in 2017) and looked for improvement over the remainder of each season in terms of 2-point defense.

That pattern turns out to be fairly random. Four of those KU teams did improve their 2-point defense over the back half of the conference season, but five went the other way and saw their numbers get worse. Still, if you're a Jayhawks fan shopping for hopeful defensive precedents, I recommend last season. That team did indeed improve its interior defense as the season progressed, and this is why expecting things to turn around again in 2017 is entirely rational. We just saw it happen.

I would add two qualifiers. First, the improvement last season was significant but not epic: 2.4 percentage points. Second, last season's team was already?way better at defending 2s after eight conference games (opponents were shooting 43.4 percent) than this season's team has been (48.5 percent). If KU improves its interior D exactly as much as last season's team did, it will bring its number down to rough equivalence with the highest such figure a Self team has ever recorded: 45.9 percent (2010-11).

Kansas can win a national title with this defense the way it is today

Now the good news for Jayhawks fans: Kansas has one of the best offenses in the country, one that can compensate for a fair degree of defensive shortcomings.

Jackson might be a work in progress?defensively, but he's a skilled featured scorer who combines interior scoring, assists and offensive boards in one highly effective bundle. Moreover, KU is posting its second consecutive season of near-immaculate 3-point shooting, even as Jackson continues to struggle from beyond the arc.

In Big 12 play, Mason, Graham and Mykhailiuk have combined to connect on 45 percent of their 3s, and in what might be a related development, KU is launching more 3-point attempts than ever before under Self. On the rare occasions when a Jayhawks player misses a 3, Lucas is on hand to crash the offensive glass. It's no mistake that this team is 18-2.

In short, I look forward to seeing Self continue to wince, stomp, yell, gesticulate and generally go nuts every time the other team has the ball. I additionally expect he'll be doing all of the above in Phoenix come April.

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