Kansas coach Bill Self reinvented himself offensively this past season — and it worked.
After previously winning championships with a three-out, two-in system, Self adjusted based on his personnel to “small ball” — a four-guard look with one-and-done freshman Josh Jackson playing the all-important 4 position.
It was a wise move. KU’s schedule-adjusted offensive efficiency improved from 10th to fifth, and the Jayhawks later were recognized by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn as having the most efficient offense in the NCAA Tournament at 1.33 points per possession.
This all leads to a natural question: Will KU have the personnel to go with “small ball” again this year?
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The answer, most likely, is no, as KU coach Bill Self explained when The Star’s Gary Bedore asked him late last month if he was committed to a four-guard lineup next year.
“Not at all,” Self said. “I’m committed to playing our best players and really our personnel, at least to me, will be quite a bit different next year because you won’t have a 6-8 guard that can play inside. Our next biggest guy will probably be Marcus Garrett or Lagerald Vick.”
This conversation took place before KU signed Jack Whitman, but that’s unlikely to alter Self’s premise; Whitman has attempted no threes in his college career, so he should be considered a traditional big man.
One can see the dilemma. Jackson’s versatility made the four-guard lineup work. He was sometimes playing undersized in the post at 6-foot-8 and 207 pounds, but he was able to still succeed thanks to his speed and athleticism.
It’s hard to see a fit like that with KU’s 2017-18 roster.
The best option is Vick, who was forced to play small-ball 4 in limited time last season because of foul trouble. Like Jackson, he has the quickness to challenge shots in the post, but his size (6-5, 175 pounds) makes him less of an ideal fit there.
Svi Mykhailiuk (6-8, 205) is bigger, but he struggled to guard in limited post-up situations last year without the recovery skills of a Jackson or Vick. There’s also no guarantee that he returns to KU for his senior season following his decision to declare for the NBA Draft last month.
This becomes even more awkward for KU considering it appears to have a glut of wing-type players that aren’t perfect fits at the 4. Mykhailiuk, if he returns, should at least average the 27 minutes he had a year ago, while Vick probably shouldn’t expect to see a decrease in his 24 minutes per contest. Self said earlier this offseason that he’d be surprised if Malik Newman was not an all-Big 12-type player, so a low expectation might be 30 minutes per game. There’s also the athletic Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Arizona State who is eligible second semester, and Garrett — Rivals.com’s 38th-ranked recruit — that seem to be best suited to play the 2 or 3 positions.
It’s an interesting spot for Self. Part of the reason to go to the four-guard look last year was to get additional time for the emerging Mykhailiuk and Vick, yet with a similar circumstance this season, he doesn’t appear (yet) to have someone who can play bigger than his natural position.
So, for now, the four-guard look is likely to be a secondary option for KU even after it was successful in 2016-17.
“I liked it,” Self said of the new offense. “I liked our team. Any time you’ve got Josh Jackson on your team, you’d like it no matter where you played him.”
Self was smart to play him where he did. Jackson is hard to replace, though, which means even after a great “small ball” year, this KU team is likely to pivot back to earlier offensive ways.
The most important goal for Self, as he proved last season, will be figuring out how to mold his offensive system to his personnel — and not the other way around.