The tinkering started last spring, Kansas basketball coaches knowing they were going to have to adjust to a 24-second shot clock in the World University Games.
The goal was to play faster, be more guard-oriented and drive the ball at nearly every opportunity.
That offensive tweaking? It led to KU going 8-0 while winning a gold medal during the international competition.
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“We came back, and we continued doing that, because we had success over there,” KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said. “I think that’s been the biggest change, and coach is unbelievable about adjusting to the talent we have and playing to what our strengths are.
“I think that’s what you’re seeing.”
As top-seeded KU prepares to take on ninth-seeded UConn at 6:45 p.m. Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks will do so with an offensive profile much different from a season ago.
Go back a year, and KU’s offensive weakness was easy to spot: The Jayhawks struggled with shot-blocking teams, ranking 19th-worst nationally in the percentage of two-pointers they had rejected.
That would have made this matchup with UConn a potential nightmare. The Huskies rank 14th nationally in defensive block percentage and fifth in two-point percentage against while building their defense around a talented back line.
Though there are no guarantees, this KU offense appears to be better equipped to handle that type of opponent. Much of the team’s offense now is initiated on the perimeter, centering mostly around high ball screens and a two-man game between quick point guard Frank Mason and versatile forward Perry Ellis.
“That has been something that’s helped us, moving guys away from the basket,” KU assistant coach Norm Roberts said.
Perhaps no play has signified KU’s new style more than “Down” — a set KU coach Bill Self signals by pretending that he’s dribbling a basketball.
Implemented before December’s San Diego State game as a way to take advantage of the Aztecs’ hard-hedging big men, the beauty of “Down” comes in its simplicity. Ellis goes to set a high ball screen for Mason (it could be Devonte’ Graham as well), then fades back to catch a potential pass.
“It’s almost like pick your poison,” Townsend said. “You’ve got to say, ‘Are we going to take away Mason and let him throw back to Ellis?’ Or are you going to take Ellis away and let Frank turn the corner on you and play to his strengths?”
Ellis said the most important part of the play was making sure he and Mason pressured defenders off the dribble.
“There’s so many things you can do with it,” Ellis said. “It’s really just playing basketball and trying to drive and be in attack mode.”
Often, the defense is put in a no-win situation. Give too much attention to Ellis, and Mason drives by for a layup. Too much focus on Mason, and Ellis can pull shot-blockers away from the rim and shoot from the outside, drive or pass.
“If you get Perry with someone off-balance coming at him, it’s pretty hard to stop it, and I know that from experience in practice,” KU forward Landen Lucas said. “It must be a mess for teams to try to guard both of those.”
The rest of KU’s personnel also make the play tough to defend. Two shooters stay in the corners to space the floor, and if their defenders help too much, a simple pass to the perimeter results in an open three.
“Whatever way they play it,” Ellis said, “it’s like there’s going to be an opening.”
While “Down” is just one play of many, the philosophical change to pull Ellis to the perimeter more often has appeared to help KU’s pieces succeed.
After ranking 234th in two-point percentage a year ago — the worst mark of Self’s tenure — KU has risen to 37th this year. The Jayhawks also moved up 223 spots in percentage of two-pointers blocked.
The offseason change, so far, has been more than an overseas wonder, the trip perhaps setting the table for a more efficient KU offense when the games matter most.
“We’ve practiced it before we went over there to see how it worked,” Townsend said, “and I think it ended up being really good for us.”