On Thursday afternoon, amidst the movement and chaos of media day at the NCAA South Regional in Cowboys Stadium, Kansas senior Travis Releford was asked to describe the Jayhawks’ defense.
It was a pretty straightforward question. Kansas leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense, the eighth time in nine seasons that the Jayhawks have ranked in the top five in the statistic. So one would think that there must be some defining principal that guides Bill Self’s brand of suffocating defense.
“Not really,” Releford answered. “First of all, they say ‘Guard your man.’ And if we do that, then we'll be fine.”
There are other factors, of course. Releford says KU’s coaches deliver detailed scouting reports, easy-to-digest breakdowns that describe opponents’ strengths, weaknesses and offensive tendencies. But the rest, senior Elijah Johnson says, comes down to toughness, sweat and pride.
“Guard your man,” Johnson said. “That's something we hear (the coaches) say a lot, ‘Guard your man
That defensive ethos could face its most intricate and demanding challenge Friday, when the top-seeded Jayhawks take on No. 4 seed Michigan in the Sweet 16. The Wolverines feature sophomore guard Trey Burke (18.8 points per game) and the second-most efficient offense in the country, according to college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy. And if the Jayhawks want to advance to the Elite Eight for the third straight year, senior center Jeff Withey conceded that they will need to do two things: Stop Burke from penetrating into the lane — and find a way to recover when he does.
“I'll definitely be in there,” Withey said.
Self said Michigan’s personnel — which includes three guards and a stretch-four in 6-foot-6 freshman Glenn Robinson III — resembled North Carolina’s small-ball attack. And that means some options on the defensive end. Self could choose to put 6-6 senior Travis Releford, his best perimeter defender, on Burke, the Wolverines’ playmaker. But Releford’s length could also be used to combat Michigan junior Tim Hardaway Jr., who also stands 6-6.
“It comes down to not necessarily how one guy guards one,” Self said. “It's how any of your guys guard that individual when he has the ball, because there could be a lot of switching involved. That's probably something that will take place.”
The Jayhawks are coming off another smothering defensive performance against North Carolina in the round of 32. KU held the Tar Heels to just 30.1 shooting for the game. And dating back to the Big 12 tournament title game, the Jayhawks have held three straight opponents under 60 points.
“No matter what,” Self said, “it seems to me like our defense has been pretty constant. I think that this team can score, but I think if our mind-set is we’re going to outscore folks, we’re going to get beat. So I think we’ve tried to make it where no matter what the situation is, we can’t allow our opponent to play well and get rhythm.”
Self likes to say that he’d just as soon win a game with a score in the 60s than in the 80s or 90s. More points, Self says, doesn’t always equal better basketball. And with Withey inside, the Jayhawks are confident they’ll have the upper hand in any game that turns into a plodding, defensive struggle.
“I can definitely have a big impact,” Withey said. “Our whole defense of this game will be not letting them get in the paint.”