Kansas might have gone farther last season had its free-throw defense not been so awful.
Opponents made 72 percent of their freebies against the Jayhawks last year (that ranked 298th nationally), and that deficiency came to bite the team at the worst time, as Villanova was 18-for-19 at the line in its Elite Eight victory over KU.
OK … we can agree that sounds ridiculous, right? Free-throw defense doesn’t exist, or at least it shouldn’t based on common sense.
Some day — maybe 10 or 20 years from now — we’ll all come to better realize that three-point defense is basically like that as well.
Ken Pomeroy uncovered the math in 2012. Once a three-point shot leaves a player’s hand, there’s little the defense can do to stop it from going in. There’s almost no blocking three-pointers, and challenging doesn’t have as much of an impact as we might expect.
Pomeroy conducted a later study and found that three-point percentage is 83 percent controlled by the offense and 17 percent controlled by defense. That made it the box-score statistic that defenses had least control over … outside of our old friend free-throw defense.
It’s a long way of introducing the fascinating game within the game between coaches Bill Self and Bob McKillop in KU’s 89-71 victory Saturday.
Davidson came in shooting more threes than twos, and McKillop told his team to fire away and hope for the best. The Wildcats went 7-for-16 from three in the first half and led by one at halftime, then made 3 of 11 in a second half when they were outscored by 19.
Here’s the important point, though: 27 of Davidson’s 56 field-goal attempts were threes. The Wildcats played how they wanted to play.
This is interesting on KU’s part. Self was asked how he viewed three-point defense earlier in the week, and he spoke, well, about a lot of things. His personal goal is to hold opponents below 33 percent for the year, but he also doesn’t like the thought of extending defense too far if it potentially opens up driving lanes.
He also followed up with this:
“I think if somebody goes 4-for-7 from three against you, you don’t look at your percentage, you look at the number of points that they would score from three,” Self said. “And I think that’s probably a better way to look at it, but I don’t know.”
It seems we basically can look at Self’s stance this way: He’s most concerned about easy baskets. Limit those while trying to contest threes, and the final overall defensive numbers at the end of the season will likely be just fine.
His quote above, though, seems to hint at what Pomeroy has come to believe: that preventing threes is the best way to play defense on the perimeter.
He’s not alone with that thinking, either.
Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn explored the topic in a 2012 story, as former coaches Rick Majerus and Bo Ryan had philosophies that emphasized running teams off the three-point line. That appeared in the stats, as in Ryan’s final four seasons, his Wisconsin Badgers ranked in the top 10 in lowest percentage of three-pointers attempted by opponents.
Self doesn’t appear to be a believer to that extent, but it was interesting hearing him Saturday when he was asked if KU’s perimeter defense improved in the second half when his team made its run.
“I think we did. I’ll have to watch the tape,” Self said. “I didn’t think we were awful, awful the first half. … Some of those shots — they’re going to make some. You shoot that many, you’re going to make a decent percentage.”
Self seems to sense that there’s a certain helplessness to three-point defense like the Pomeroy study suggests. And even though this year’s team has allowed a lower percentage of three-pointers than any KU team under Self, the question remains whether KU could help itself by pushing its defense out further to prevent the shots that have been hurting the team most.
Here are the facts. KU, like almost every year under Self, has a dominant two-point defense (a stat that is 50 percent controlled by offense and 50 percent controlled by defense, according to Pomeroy’s findings). After Saturday’s game, opponents are shooting 40 percent from two-point range, with the Jayhawks well on their way to finishing top 40 in the category for the 14th straight year.
Knowing that, is it Self’s job to try to force teams into more of those inside shots?
It’s a more complicated question than it seems. Closing out harder to prevent threes could lead to more drives, which could create more fouls for a team without much depth. It’s also possible that the change could harm KU’s two-point defense to the point where it might not be as elite in past years.
It’s a question worth considering, though.
Self has racked up more than 500 career victories in part by controlling as much as he can from the sideline. Each year, KU ranks among the best in the nation on plays after timeouts and also baseline out of bounds sets — two areas almost completely managed by the coach.
With three-point defense, though, Self has mostly allowed KU’s defense to be determined by the whims of opponents’ shooting.
On Saturday, that meant that the outmatched team led the top-five team at halftime. McKillop’s thinking, even if it didn’t work out perfectly, was sound.
The three-pointer — literally — was Davidson’s best shot.
And future KU opponents are likely to think the same way.