LAWRENCE — Sometime over the last 11 years, Bill Self’s coaching reputation began to evolve. He was always The Master Recruiter, an accomplished winner who could manage a roster and put a team of top-50 recruits on the floor.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
But in those early years at Kansas, Self was never thought of as a late-game tactician. But now, you can hardly go a game without a color analyst talking up Self’s ability to take advantage of in-bounds opportunities and draw up useful sets. Perhaps nothing has changed in the last 10 years. But perception can be a powerful thing.
If you watch enough Kansas, you notice a familiar trend. It’s not that Self draws up late-game plays that opponents haven’t seen before. It’s generally that KU runs the same two or three late-game sets — sets with multiple options — and the Jayhawks generally run them well.
On Tuesday night in Lubbock, Kansas beat Texas Tech in the final seconds. There was an element of luck involved, of course — maybe a lot of luck. But it’s worth taking a look back at that final possession, when Andrew Wiggins swooped in and dropped in a last-second layup after Joel Embiid lost the ball across the lane.
It’s not just that it was essentially the same set that Kansas ran to tie the game against Colorado earlier in the season. (Remember that play?) It was the exact same play that the Jayhawks had run on the previous possession. So before we get to Kansas’ final play, let’s look at the possession before that, when the Jayhawks trailed 61-60 with under 40 seconds left.
Kansas spread the floor with Andrew Wiggins on the left wing, and Joel Embiid on the block. And Perry Ellis set a high ball screen for Naadir Tharpe.
In the next moment, Tharpe delivered the ball to Ellis on the pick-and-pop, setting up numbers for Kansas on the left side. Ellis had the option to attack the basket or look for Andrew Wiggins in the corner. With the help defense shading into the paint, Ellis quickly looked toward Wiggins.
Wiggins, as he had done for most of the night, attacked the basket. He missed the dunk, but Embiid was there to grab the offensive rebound and throw down a two-handed jam.
So that’s the set Texas Tech had seen just 30 seconds earlier. Now Texas Tech had made two free throws, regaining the lead. And Bill Self called timeout with 12 seconds left.
So what would Kansas run?
Once again, Kansas came out in the same look: Wiggins and Wayne Selden on the wing, Embiid on the block, and Ellis setting a high ball screen for Tharpe. Except this time, Texas Tech packed it in the lane, surrounding Ellis and essentially taking away the options on the pick-and-pop.
Here’s where it gets a little confusing. Ellis said after the game that Texas Tech “hedged (the screen) real hard” containing Tharpe at the top of the key. So instead of going to his right, Tharpe moved to his left and Ellis took a step toward the lane before flashing back toward the top of the key.
By packing in the defense, Texas Tech took Wiggins’ side away, and Tharpe quickly swung the ball to Ellis, who looked inside to Joel Embiid on the block. Thing is, I’m not sure if this was the play all along. Ellis and Self seemed to suggest that it was the same play, that KU was just going off how Texas Tech played it. Maybe KU really did want to get Ellis on the same side as Wiggins again. It was so seamless, though, it almost looked as if they were using the past set as a decoy. Either way, Ellis adjusted on the fly and delivered the ball to Embiid.
You know what happened next. After all that, KU still needed some luck. Here’s the whole thing in real time.
2. Andrew Wiggins’ offense. Wiggins finished with 19 points on six-of-11 shooting, and based on the pure eye test, it looked like Wiggins attacked the rim harder than he has all season. The numbers support this. Wiggins shot eight free throws, and took just two two-point jumpers. On multiple occasions in the second half, he passed up open three-pointer near the corner to attack the rim.
After the game, Wiggins said he focused more driving because the Jayhawks were in the bonus with more than 10 minutes left in the game. Any little bit of contact on a drive would send Wiggins to the line. If that’s the case, well … maybe Wiggins should attack like KU is in the bonus all game.
3. The Big 12 race. It’s pretty simple now. Kansas, 11-2 in the Big 12, has a two-game lead over Texas with five remaining. Everybody else in the conference has at least five losses. If the Jayhawks hold serve against Texas at home on Saturday, they can clinch a share of their 10th straight Big 12 title with a home victory over Oklahoma on Big Monday.
If Kansas loses on Saturday, they can still clinch a share of the title by going 3-1 in their final four games. After playing Oklahoma on Monday, KU travels to Oklahoma State on March 1, plays host to Texas Tech on March 5 and travels to West Virginia on March. 8.