The Kansas offensive system is predicated on options. This is the way Bill Self wants it. One play can split into three. The point guard reads the opposing defense and adjusts accordingly. If a defensive player guards a ball screen a certain way, then one play designed with three basic options might suddenly have another four variations.
Self thrives on adaptability — always has, really — and his teams do the same. But in the eternal search for a malleable offense that can score against any defense, Self also believes that teams must carve out a true identity — something like a calling card.
So if you were to step into a Kansas basketball practice at the right moment, say, a Tuesday in November, you might see a rather strange image. The Jayhawks will be scrimmaging, just like normal, offense vs. defense, the same plays with the same options. But you will realize very quickly that something is different. The Jayhawks are only throwing lob passes, only trying to score at the rim, only trying to finish the possession with basketball’s most beautiful play: the alley-oop.
“We actually have drills in practice where the only passes we can throw are lobs,” Self says, “we spend a lot of time emphasizing that.”
For more than a decade, Self has coached this way. He has given his players the freedom to improvise, but he has also stocked his playbook with plays that feature back-door lobs and other high-flying accoutrements. In one famous story, Self once called something like five lobs in a row during a late-season game against Texas Tech. The reason: Andrew Wiggins, then a senior in high school, was sitting in the stands on his official visit. Self wanted to make sure his style stood out.
This season, though, has been something different. Entering Saturday’s 86-54 victory over Texas Tech, the Jayhawks were perhaps Self’s most grounded team in a decade. In 14 games, the Jayhawks had finished just 27 dunks, fewer than two dunks per game. There were even fewer lobs.
It’s not that Kansas was immune to a nice highlight here or there, but this was not the place that was tagged with the nickname “Lob-rence, Kan.”
“We don’t have 7-footers to throw it to, where (you throw) a bad pass, you can still come away with two points,” Self says. “We have to be much more precise.
“We haven’t been very good at that this year.”
On Saturday, the Jayhawks’ offense offered some of that precision. Kansas finished with a season-high seven dunks, an all-out assault on the rims that included a handful of lob plays. The result was nice, but it was the process that was more promising for Self.
Freshman guard Devonte’ Graham, who had spent a month on the sideline because of “turf toe,” returned to the rotation, and the Jayhawks’ offense looked as free-flowing as it has all season. Graham and sophomore point guard Frank Mason were both threats to penetrate, and the addition of a playmaker continually put Kansas in advantageous situations.
Junior forward Perry Ellis finished with 15 points, while freshman forward Cliff Alexander was on the receiving end of two lobs and scored 12 points on six-of-eight shooting.
“On different plays, we have different options,” Mason says. “Maybe the first or second option will be to hit the roll guy once we see the defender hedge a little too hard, and we just throw it up to the rim.”
There are, Self says, physical reasons why the Kansas team has struggled to play above the rim this season. It is difficult to throw alley-oops over opposing defenses when you’re throwing it to 6-7 and 6-8 post guys. It’s harder still when your backup point guard is sidelined for a month, and your starting point guard must play 35 minutes per game.
Alexander, meanwhile, has been Kansas’ most exciting finisher, accounting for 16 of Kansas’ 34 dunks during his freshman season. But for now, Alexander is still coming off the bench as No. 9 Kansas, 13-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big 12, prepares to face No. 24 Oklahoma State, 12-3 and 2-1, tonight at Allen Fieldhouse.
On paper, the Jayhawks are not a team that will overwhelm Big 12 opponents with size and athleticism in the frontcourt — as they have for a decade. But the return of Graham and the continued development of Mason could unlock certain areas of the floor and spur the offense.
“The bottom line,” Self said, “is we’ll be a much more exciting team to watch play.”
In basketball parlance, exciting could mean more penetration, more three-on-two or two-on-one opportunities, more chances to throw the ball up toward the rim and finish with a flourish. All things being equal, Self would take that option every time.
“Once I make that eye connection with one of my teammates,” Mason says. “I just try to throw it up to the rim and let them go get it.”