Even before the Kentucky debacle, Bill Self had questions. Even before the humiliation of a 32-point loss, the Kansas coach had concerns. Publicly, Self worried about his team’s offensive bandwidth — its ability to score in the paint and manufacture easy buckets. Privately, he did the same.
On a Wednesday in October, Self sat inside the Sprint Center at Big 12 media day and boiled his concerns into one overriding theme.
“I don’t know how well we can score inside,” Self said then. “We’ve always been a team that played on angles, but it doesn’t look like that’s coming quite as naturally for this group as it has for some of the other teams we’ve had.”
During 11 seasons at Kansas, Self has never lacked for confidence, nor strayed from a persona of affable optimism. Give the coach enough time, provide him enough quality pieces, and Self will find a way — the Big 12’s answer to a coaching MacGyver. But even in October, weeks before an early-season litmus test against No. 1 Kentucky, Self could see that this Kansas team would offer a new kind of challenge.
Self, of course, did not expect a 72-40 loss to Kentucky at the Champions Classic. He did not foresee the Jayhawks shooting 19 percent or finishing with as many field goals (11) as shots blocked.
“You know, 40 points was kind of — it wasn’t really who we were based on how we play,” Self said.
So who are these Jayhawks?
While Kansas’ offense has adapted and evolved during Self’s tenure, he is still a coach who at his core believes in a high-low offense that establishes an inside game first. In 11 seasons, the Jayhawks have ranked outside the country’s top 30 in two-point field-goal percentage just once (62nd in 2005-06), and in most years, they are a regular in the top 20. Last year, with future NBA big men Joel Embiid and Tarik Black in the paint, the Jayhawks shot 55 percent inside the three-point line, the seventh-best mark in the country.
Or consider this: Last season, Kansas shot 67 percent on field-goal attempts at the rim, according to numbers at Hoop-Math.com. In two games this season, the Jayhawks have finished on just 28.3 percent of shots at the rim. Some of this can be chalked up to the Kentucky factor. Is there any team that can score inside against the Wildcats’ band of 7-footer? But some of it might say something about Kansas.
“In the game, we had nothing we knew we could go to,” sophomore guard Brannen Greene said. “In past teams, they knew they had something they could do. They knew they could throw it in the post, and that guy was going to seal.”
Here is an illustration of Self’s preseason concerns: Kansas’ coach wants to play inside-out, but do the Jayhawks have somebody to throw it to consistently? The Jayhawks’ top low-post scoring options are junior Perry Ellis, a 6-foot-8 power forward who has struggled against bigger opponents, and 6-8 freshman Cliff Alexander, a supreme talent who is still learning how to score in Kansas’ offense.
In high school, Self says, Alexander could just maul opponents. In college, he can’t. And that makes the little details more important.
“We never ran offense one time the way we’re supposed to — to give it a chance,” Self said. “I would like to see us be able to learn how to score through what we run. We run good stuff.”
Self offers the following analogy: If a quarterback is running a play with a three-step drop, and he uses a five-step, the odds of a completion will obviously decrease. The timing will be off.
So as Kansas returns to the floor against Rider on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, Self is focused on running offense the right way. If the Jayhawks can’t overwhelm opponents with size, they will have to do it with angles, ball movement and crisp execution.
“It (was) all screwed up,” Self said. “And that’s where we were the whole time. We never caught the ball in the right spot; our screened angles weren’t correct; we bounced it one too many times; (we) didn’t drive to pass.
“There was a lot of things we didn’t do very well that I think we can correct, but it’ll take another time.”
If the Jayhawks’ offensive issues necessitate game reps, they will come over the next week. After facing Rider on Monday (7 p.m. on Time Warner Cable SportsChannel), the Jayhawks will travel to the Orlando Classic for three games in four days, beginning Thursday against Rhode Island. For the moment, Self is drilling home the obvious points, like how setting one bad screen can doom a possession.
“I don’t think we’re really understanding why we set the screen.” Greene said. “Like: You have to set the screen, because then it opens up an option. There are so many options, but if you mess up on one, then it just messes up everything else and we just got to see that.”
For the moment, Self and his players can attest to one thing: They are still finding out who and what they are — as an offense and a team. And for now, Self says, this much is clear: They need time.
“(The offense) works,” freshman wing Kelly Oubre said. “We have to do it right. We have to do our assignments right.”