The story of KU’s 70-56 victory over Kansas State on Monday was simple if we wanted to just go by the reputations of the two coaches.
Except, as is the case most of the time, the whole conversation should have been more nuanced than that.
K-State, which entered as the most efficient offense in Big 12 play, was held to 0.84 points per possession — easily its worst mark over the last month.
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Looking closer, though, something else was playing out.
Synergy Sports Technology tracks data for each game, and its logs revealed this: K-State — the top three-point shooting team in conference play coming in — pulled up for 17 “open” three-point attempts against KU. A visual on each of those shots is shown below (enlarged photo).
If the Wildcats shot their season average (36 percent), we’d expect them to make six of those. These are “open” spot-ups, though, and based on previous Synergy data, the Wildcats would be predicted to make at least one more three in that particular situation.
Instead, K-State made 4 of 17, scoring 12 points when we’d expect 6-9 points more on average. The makes are highlighted below (enlarged photo).
The point here isn’t to take credit away from KU. The defense the Jayhawks played was effective and did work against the Wildcats.
But it doesn’t look like something that’s sustainable moving forward — and even Self would agree with that.
“They missed shots,” Self said of his team’s three-point defense against K-State. “I don’t think our zone the other day was anything that for sure made K-State miss from guarding them. I think what it did was it probably got them out of rhythm, which makes shots harder.”
Self is right in this instance: The zone defense was a curveball. Had K-State made its first two threes going against it, KU could have adjusted back to a man defense, and missing the first few shots probably affected the Wildcats’ psyche moving forward.
But did KU really “force” those errant shots? No defense wants to allow that many open threes, so while the Jayhawks got away with it Monday, that doesn’t appear to be a reliable plan moving forward.
Studies back this as well. Ken Pomeroy has found that three-point shooting is 83 percent dictated by the offense and 17 percent by the defense, meaning it’s tough for a defense to control what happens once threes leave an opponent’s hand.
And knowing this makes it more difficult to believe that KU has truly improved over the last few weeks.
In conference play, the Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in three-point percentage defense at 29 percent, while second-place K-State is well back at 33 percent.
So let’s go down a rabbit hole for a second. KU has allowed a lot of three-point attempts — 223 — in nine Big 12 games. The difference between opponents shooting 29 percent and 33 percent would be 11 three-pointers, or 33 points total.
KU, so far, has a Big 12 score differential of plus-21.
This is all hypothetical, but it’s not incorrect to say that the only thing keeping KU from being a worse-than-average Big 12 team efficiency-wise is a part of basketball that is mostly determined by luck.
There’s also this: The open shots for K-State are part of a season-long trend for KU. Synergy tracks “unguarded” spot-up shots — these can be twos or threes — for each team, and KU has allowed the 13th-most out of 351 Division I teams.
Among the 13 on this list, only two are in the top 100 defensively in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency measure: Texas-Arlington (83rd) and KU (22nd). This would support common sense, which would tell us that allowing open spot-up shots is no way to build an effective defense.
There’s another question to ask here: Could this KU team potentially have more control than others at forcing missed threes that are guarded? Self says playing four guards can help, as closeouts are potentially quicker to outside shooters. It also could be beneficial that KU’s backcourt is filled with taller players that, in theory, should be more difficult to shoot over.
I asked Pomeroy’s thoughts, and he’s previously found evidence that two-point percentage defense and longer possession length can be potential indicators of better-than-expected three-point percentage defense.
This doesn’t play in KU’s favor, though; the Jayhawks rank ninth in Big 12 play in two-point defense with a defensive possession length that is slightly better than NCAA average. Those aren’t the markers, though, of a team that typically thrives at forcing three-point misses.
It’s a long way of saying this: KU has allowed conference opponents to make 29 percent of their threes. Big 12 teams have made 37 percent of their outside shots in league play. And if Pomeroy were to predict moving forward, he’d guess KU’s defense would allow about 35-percent makes on those shots for the second half of conference play.
That’s a lot of extra points to account for — about 4 1/2 per game — if KU’s defense continues to allow the same number of threes as it has so far.
This isn’t a knock to KU. The Jayhawks have earned their 7-2 Big 12 record while living in a reality where opponents have missed shots.
It’s not wise, though, to expect those numbers moving forward.
This part of the game — unlike so many others — is essentially out of the Jayhawks’ control.