The ballroom in the Kansas City Marriott Downtown was lined with tape, a makeshift miniature basketball court with a make-believe hoop on one end.
Landen Lucas had just finished eggs and bacon Friday morning when Kansas coach Bill Self wanted to go over the Jayhawks’ new play again. Baylor was going to go to its Amoeba zone later that night, and the Jayhawks were going to be ready for it.
The basics were this: Baylor’s defense leaves one big man in an island on the back line. That leaves the Bears vulnerable to lobs and alley-oops if the Jayhawks can simply screen that man or keep him occupied.
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After introducing the play at dinner the night before, Self had his players walk through it. They would never end up practicing it on a real court before top-ranked KU’s 70-66 win over No. 22 Baylor on Friday night in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center.
A run-through on carpet was enough.
“We didn’t convert on all of them,” Lucas said, “but we definitely took advantage of it as best we could.”
As college basketball’s calendar flips into the most important weeks, KU once again had one of its greatest strengths on display during its 13th straight victory Friday.
In a rare off-shooting game for the Jayhawks, they still were able to persevere with help from eight dunks, many of those coming on set-play lobs.
In other words, KU’s coaches — starting with Self — were able to steal points in a game in which offense was often difficult to come by.
“When you see the ball go through the hoop for your team,” Lucas said, “it’s such a confidence-builder moving forward.”
The ability to lean on their coach in tough times also has led to a bit of a feeling of invincibility surrounding the Jayhawks, especially in the last month.
KU improved to 11-0 in Big 12 games decided by 10 points or fewer, and that’s seeming more like a trend that an extended string of luck. The players make free throws late. They defend during the game’s most important stretches.
And they have a coach who has a reputation for getting his teams to finish strong.
Of course, Self has also won with defense in the past, and KU showed plenty of that early in withstanding an offensive funk.
Despite one of its worst first halves offensively, the Jayhawks trailed only 23-21 after creating eight first-half steals while dominating the defensive glass. Baylor, which entered as the nation’s third-best offensive rebounding team, grabbed just two of its 15 misses before the break.
“If our defense is like it has been,” Lucas said, “we’ll at least be able to stay into most games.”
KU did while continuing to thrive with a team concept. Lucas, who has become more comfortable with additional playing time, also has started to challenge more shots at the rim at Self’s request, with the coach telling Lucas that the team needed him to attempt to alter shots even if he couldn’t block them.
The Jayhawks, 29-4 overall, picked up their offense in the second half, helped by a few more alley-oops.
“Just from watching film and seeing how they play zone, we knew we could get lobs from attacking the zone,” KU guard Devonte’ Graham said, “and just coming down and throwing the lob how we did.”
With the victory, KU advanced to the Big 12 Tournament final against West Virginia at 5 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.
In many ways, Friday’s routine mimicked what KU will go through when the most important games start next week.
The Jayhawks will be in another hotel ballroom — likely in Des Moines — needing to learn how to exploit weaknesses during a breakfast run-through.
The good news? The same coach will be there drawing up plays. And even if a zero-foot hoop made of tape isn’t 100-percent realistic … the Jayhawks have proven that’s all they need to make things work on 10-foot rims later in the day.
“If we can stay in the games,” Lucas said, “eventually he’ll be able to scheme up something.”