The last time Long Beach State coach Dan Monson was at Allen Fieldhouse five years ago, Kansas forward Thomas Robinson scored 26 points.
There was no wondering where KU’s points were coming from, or whom the focal point of the offense was.
Monson remembers that 88-80 loss well. He laments that Robinson made four or five buckets on tough 12-foot turnarounds. If those didn’t go in, and if his team made a couple of more plays to shut down KU’s inside game … well, who knows?
That KU team went on to the NCAA championship game. And following his team’s 91-61 loss to No. 4 KU on Tuesday, Monson had an observation about this year’s Jayhawks that might be surprising.
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“I think they’re more balanced than that (2012) team was,” Monson said.
OK, the caveat first. Monson says that squad obviously developed balance over the course of the season or it wouldn’t have ended up in the NCAA’s final game.
Still, this team — with its four guards that can all drive, pass and shoot on the floor together — presents a completely different headache for opposing coaches.
What do you take away? For Monson, the answer was the inside. He used a matchup zone with hopes of keeping the Jayhawks’ guards out of the paint. KU guard Devonté Graham was well aware when he heard Long Beach State’s players scream, “Pack it in! Pack it in!” during the middle of defensive possessions.
“It’s hard to guard everything when you’ve got four guys that can attack the basket,” Graham said.
It’s time to focus on that more than anything else with this KU offense.
Look, it’s easy to pick nits if one wants to. Where is the frontcourt scoring? Why aren’t the bigs producing more? And in other years, those would be valid concerns given how much KU coach Bill Self has leaned on his forwards for scoring.
Here’s the reality, though: This team doesn’t need scoring from those positions. The guards are too good. Spread it, let those guys drive, and the bigs can mop up whatever points are dropped in their lap.
That appears to be how this particular team can reach its highest ceiling offensively.
KU has faced lots of zone this year, and for good reason, as opponents are working to reduce the impact of dribble penetration from Graham, Frank Mason and Josh Jackson.
And on Tuesday, it didn’t work. KU not only made the unselfish pass to get three-pointers, but it also had guys like Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick take those open shots without hesitating.
Self, as you might expect, doesn’t love this as much as he probably should. He’s been burned in the NCAA Tournament too many times from cold outside shooting nights.
“You’re not going to win consistently against good teams relying on making three-point shots all the time,” Self said, “because there are going to be times when you don’t make them.”
This is the complement of KU’s driving, though. The Jayhawks are nearly impossible to stop off the dribble, so teams overhelp. That opens up passes and three-point attempts. Once KU makes a few, those defenders are hesitant to help as much, and KU’s guards get back to the lane for easy shots.
The Jayhawks need those threes this year as much as any in Self’s past, as without consistent low-post touches, the team won’t be getting as many free throws. With four-guard looks, KU could still make up for that and more by reducing its turnovers and also taking the non-contested three-point shots like it did Tuesday.
This also means this year’s big men will be asked to do something different from all other years, as all will likely be role players. Carlton Bragg admitted he was struggling with decision-making and shot selection afterward, still trying to figure out when he was supposed to be aggressive and when he wasn’t.
The answer is likely this: not often. In the first half, KU’s true post players combined for one point (a banked-in free throw from Udoka Azubuike), yet KU’s offense revved to 1.50 points per possession — a pace that would have topped any mark last season, including the game against Division II Chaminade.
So what does KU need this year out of its big men?
“At least a big can block a shot. We had no blocked shots tonight,” Self said, maybe missing that Dwight Coleby had one block. “I think bigs can rebound better. I think that we can score with angles better, and certainly, we can shoot our free throws better.
“But we’re not going to be a team that’s going to score 20 points out of the post this year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
That sounds like a negative comment, but it doesn’t have to be.
This KU team is built like no other under Self, putting immense pressure on a defense by having versatile players at the four perimeter positions.
Just ask Monson: That’s a heckuva a tough thing to guard as well.