We’re going to talk about one possession — one stop — but it’s much bigger than that.
Kansas defeated Baylor 67-65 on Saturday afternoon by locking down defensively in the game’s final seconds. The Jayhawks, in doing so, improved to 9-1 in Big 12 games decided by single digits.
Yes, close games are partly about luck. And quite a few outside Lawrence will point to officiating as a reason for KU’s late-game success.
Saying that, though, is lazy at the least. If you look closely, KU gave away its formula for winning close games in the final 8.6 seconds.
The problem is, it’s not easy to replicate.
1. Scouting report
KU learned from Kansas State’s mistake.
The Jayhawks’ coaching staff knew Baylor’s favorite sideline out of bounds play. It was a version of a set run numerous times this year and outlined recently by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn in his weekly Power Rankings.
Winn calls it “post pins with diagonal, lobbed entries to a cleared-out weakside.” In simple terms: Baylor likes to throw it over the top to leading scorer Johnathan Motley for an easy scoring opportunity.
Baylor had already tried this once in a similar situation — exactly two weeks earlier against K-State, it ran the same play to try to get Motley a layup. Ish Wainright’s pass made it to Motley, but the forward missed the close shot inside.
“We were pretty prepared for it,” KU’s Landen Lucas said. “We had seen it before.”
KU’s coaches warned in the timeout huddle that the lob might be coming, and with that knowledge, the Jayhawks shaded Josh Jackson toward Motley in the post to discourage the pass. Motley might be able to outleap Lucas, but he’d have a tougher time doing that against Jackson.
“If they feel uncomfortable about it, they’re not going to force it,” Lucas said. “Really, if they had tried it, I think we would have got a hand on it.”
2. Smart defense
Baylor is forced to throw it in to 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil near midcourt, and KU coach Bill Self says the team has executed the most important part defensively. If the Bears get it inside, the Jayhawks’ options are limited: They can’t double team late-game because a potential kickout three-pointer would win the game, making it vital to make Baylor play from the perimeter, where KU can switch all ball screens.
Lual-Acuil swings it to Manu Lecomte on the outside, and Jackson takes an educated risk. His man — Lual-Acuil — is not a go-to guy offensively.
“We figured Acuil wouldn’t shoot the last shot,” Jackson said, “so might as well double.”
With 5 seconds left, Jackson fully commits to the double-team on the wing. Lecomte tries to drive right, runs into Frank Mason at the three-point line, then stops with Jackson directly behind him.
KU’s defensive plan proves sound. Lecomte doesn’t even look Lual-Acuil’s direction, forcing up a leaning shot with a foot on the three-point line.
It glances off the front rim just before the buzzer sounds.
3. Defensive intuition
Self is impressed with Jackson’s instincts, knowing it was wise to completely abandon Lual-Acuil with around 4 seconds left. By then, there wouldn’t be enough time for a pass and a shot.
The Mason-Jackson double-team led to the best of all options: a difficult long shot that would only potentially tie the game.
“I thought those guys did an unbelievable job at game point,” Self said.
This KU team has proven it can defend late. And moments like this should give KU fans hope that this defense’s best days could still be ahead.
“Everyone was locked in to what Coach wanted us to do on the defensive end,” Mason said. “We showed strong help and just wanted to contest everything. I think we did a good job of making them settle.”
KU won Saturday because it was great late, showing strong defensive instincts when it mattered most. Self deserves credit too, as he had his team prepared for a play call before Baylor even tried to execute it.
Luck, officiating … none of it is enough to explain a 9-1 record in close league games.
Unfortunately for the rest of the Big 12, the Jayhawks’ formula — future Hall of Fame coach, near-perfect execution late — isn’t the easiest thing to replicate.