The worst defense ever played under Bill Self at Kansas looks like surrender.
You can see it early in the first half, when Naadir Tharpe is playing defense on Dustin Hogue in only the vaguest sense of the term, allowing the Iowa State guard the kind of time and ease to swish a three-pointer that you usually only see in warm-ups.
You can see it late in the second half, too, when the Cyclones score points Nos. 82 and 83 on a run-out and the coaches don’t even bother getting up to scream.
And you can see it late in the game, when Self tells his team not to bother fouling. Wayne Selden fouls anyway, because why not, nobody notices one more paper towel on the floor of the dirty bathroom.
Iowa State has its best win of the season, 94-83 over Kansas in the Big 12 semifinals, and the Jayhawks have a reminder to the college basketball world: They are mediocre defensively, and the team that knocks them out of the NCAA Tournament will likely take advantage of this.
“They were comfortable,” Self says.
“We were on our heels,” KU forward Perry Ellis says.
“When we got stops in the second half,” Self says, “it felt like it was just because they missed, not because we made them miss.”
A disclaimer before this takedown of KU’s defense continues: Iowa State is one of the best offensive teams in the country, with unselfish scorers all over the floor and one of the game’s better coaches. As Self points out, KU probably won’t play a better offensive team in the NCAA Tournament than what Iowa State was Friday.
But so much of this is on KU, too, and before you take the opening sentence of this column as hyperbole, please consider two facts.
This is, statistically, the worst defensive team (by efficiency and efficiency ranking) that Self has had at Kansas.
And Iowa State’s 94 points are the most ever scored in regulation against Self at Kansas.
It’s strange to see Kansas in this situation. Self has built an absurd run of success at KU mostly by recruiting and coaching defense. The names change, but the two constants are Big 12 championships and an unapologetic nasty streak on defense. KU won another regular-season conference title this year, of course, but teams know they can get comfortable against the Jayhawks — especially away from Allen Fieldhouse. K-State shot 49 percent in Manhattan, West Virginia shot 53 percent in Morgantown, and Duke shot 52 percent in Chicago.
KU’s defense has been an issue all season, and for however long Joel Embiid remains out with a back injury, Jayhawks fans should be at terror level orange.
KU was very good defensively against Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals without Embiid, so this is not a fatal flaw as much as it is a type of Russian roulette. But a well-coached team (ahem, Travis Ford) with good skill can exploit the Jayhawks, particularly without the agile 7-footer in back to cover warts.
“It was a little bit easier to get to the rim,” said Georges Niang, who led Iowa State with 25 points.
Embiid and Andrew Wiggins are the only good defenders among KU’s regular starting lineup. Tarik Black is also strong — he’s more athletic than he appears — but not enough to make up for the deficiencies of Ellis and especially Tharpe.
With Embiid in the paint, KU’s defenders know that if they’re beat, their man still might not score. Without Embiid, they know their man probablywill
score. And too often, KU’s defenders are getting beat.
Consider that with Embiid, KU held Iowa State to 39 percent shooting in two wins. Without him, Iowa State hit 54 percent — including 68 percent in the second half.
It’s an oversimplification to blame it all on injury (Iowa State hit some well-defended shots, too), but it is true that fundamental weaknesses of this team are exposed without Embiid in the game. KU is particularly bad at pressuring ball handlers and creating turnovers (219th in steal percentage). Some of that is made up with being 16th in blocks and strong on the boards, but those strengths are obviously minimized without Embiid.
This means the Jayhawks are playing a game of chicken in the NCAA Tournament. Depending on the matchup, it’s entirely possible they could catch a skilled and hot team in the round of 32 and be done before Embiid returns.
But if Wiggins can continuehis Teen Wolf act
long enough for Embiid to return — he needed 21 shots for his 22 points against Iowa State after scoring 71 on just 35 shots the previous two games — KU’s defense goes from a ticking time bomb to passable. And if that happens, the Jayhawks are solidly back among a group of eight or so teams that nobody would be surprised to see win the national championship.
Realistically, there aren’t many teams that could even be this optimistic without the projected No. 1 pick in the draft.
But the standards are different at Kansas. Optimism doesn’t matter as much as results. The NCAA Tournament awaits. KU’s season will likely be determined by Wiggins’ offense, and his teammates’ defense.
Ask a KU fan how they feel about that second part.