Bill Self can’t remember where he read the research study, or who wrote it, or a number of other details that one might consider important. He saw it a few years ago, an explanation of why basketball teams win games.
Forget all the numbers, Self explains. This study found that the three statistics that most correlated to winning were field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage defense and rebounding.
“And that’s kind of what we’ve tried to hang our hat on,” Self says.
Which is partially why this study popped into his head on a Thursday afternoon in January before KU opened the Big 12 season on the road.
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In 13 non-conference games, the Jayhawks allowed opposing teams to shoot 41.9 percent from the floor. Compared to the rest of the country, this is a solid number. Compared to Kansas’ history and expectations — where a Big 12 title and a Final Four appearance are the primary goals — it’s very concerning.
So Self knew this better than anybody: If the Jayhawks didn’t start guarding better, it could be a long winter in Lawrence.
“I would be disappointed every year if we are not a top-10 defensive team in the country,” Self said on that day in January. “And we are obviously not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve.”
One month later, Self stepped back inside Allen Fieldhouse for another Thursday afternoon practice, just two days before traveling to Oklahoma State for an important road test at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Jayhawks have improved, which is one reason they are 8-1 in the Big 12 and tracking toward an unprecedented 11th straight conference title.
Kansas leads the Big 12 in three-point shooting, sophomore Frank Mason has grown into a trusted lead guard and forward Perry Ellis had rediscovered his scoring touch. But if you want to find one reason the Jayhawks are back atop the Big 12, you might start with Self’s favorite basketball study. Or at least the one he cited back in January.
For the moment, the Jayhawks are guarding better than they have all season. They are defending, in other words, like a usual Kansas team. In nine conference games, KU is holding teams to just 37.3 shooting overall and 39.1 percent inside the three-point line, which ranks first in the Big 12. For a team with no traditional shot-blocker, the Jayhawks are also protecting the rim better than expected. For the season, Kansas’ block percentage ranks 36th in the country.
As a result, Kansas now ranks 26th in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Self has had better defensive teams, of course. From 2006-13, no KU team ranked worse than 11th nationally in defensive efficiency. But after falling into the low 40s during this non-conference season, the Jayhawks are trending upward, which bodes well for their postseason prospects. Consider this: In the last 10 seasons, no team has won the NCAA championship with a defense that ranked worse than 21st in efficiency.
“We played a hard schedule,” Self says. “I tell you what: You shouldn’t even look at your overall season stats. Just look at your conference stats when everybody’s playing the same people.”
Self doesn’t spend his days poring over his team’s statistics, but he does keep certain benchmarks in mind. All things being equal, he would like to hold opponents to under 38 percent shooting, average around seven steals per game and be plus-five in rebounding margin. For the moment, the Jayhawks are close.
In nine conference games, Kansas is averaging 6.6 steals per game and outrebounding opponents by close to three boards per game. The emergence of freshman wing Kelly Oubre has helped in both areas: The 6-foot-7 Oubre leads Kansas with 15 steals in conference play while averaging 5.8 rebounds from a guard position. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander, meanwhile, has blocked 13 shots in nine games, aiding a frontcourt that has protected the rim by committee.
“It’s just timing,” Alexander says.
Self, though, still believes Kansas can take another step on the defensive end. Part of this is consistency, of course, and part of it will be maintaining the stifling defense when the competition ratchets up in March. Here’s a quick story. Earlier this week, Self sat down to watch film of his team’s 67-57 victory over Oklahoma State on Jan. 13. The Jayhawks held Oklahoma State to under 32 percent shooting from the field inside Allen Fieldhouse, but as Self watched, there were still too many breakdowns.
“I’m amazed how many times they got all the way to the rim,” Self said.
The overall point: If Kansas is going to continue to handle opponents and roll toward another Big 12 title, the defense must stay at Self’s standards. In early January, Self had a simple description for his defense: “OK.” One month later, Self simply said this:
“Been a lot better.”