University of Kansas

Why ‘small ball’ is a big change for KU basketball

Kansas’ Frank Mason (left) and Devonté Graham could be joined by two more guards on the floor this season.
Kansas’ Frank Mason (left) and Devonté Graham could be joined by two more guards on the floor this season.

Bill Self admits this isn’t easy for him.

The Kansas men’s basketball coach has elevated himself to this point — he’s a surefire future Hall of Famer — while sticking to an offense that he began running during his days at Tulsa nearly 20 years ago.

The basic staple is this: Three out, two in. While others go small, KU goes big.

“I’ve always been a guy that plays inside-out, and you guys know that,” Self said. “But I’m becoming more and more open to playing outside-in, because we’ve had to the last couple years.”

KU’s roster has taken an even different shape in 2016-17. Though the Jayhawks’ 4 and 5 positions are typically the ones drawing the preseason hype, this year it’s the guards, as the team is unquestionably led by all-Big 12 preseason picks Frank Mason and Devonté Graham.

The 2016-17 puzzle is more complex than that, though. Beyond frontcourt starters Carlton Bragg and Landen Lucas, the Jayhawks are faced with question marks inside. Will freshmen Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot be able to grasp everything right away? And will transfer Dwight Coleby prove to be over a knee injury from last season?

Wings Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick also appear to be solidifying themselves as trustworthy rotation candidates who will likely be the first players off the bench.

What does it all mean? While KU played “inside-out” last year by bringing forward Perry Ellis away from the basket (while still keeping two big men in the game), this year’s offense should, at times, take the next step beyond that.

The Jayhawks likely will play more four-guard looks this season — “small ball” — starting with Tuesday’s exhibition against Washburn.

“I’m becoming more and more comfortable with it,” Self said. “I want to give our guards freedom.”

So what might it look like?

We have that answer … in the tiniest of samples.

In 1,540 minutes last year, KU ran its four-guard lineup … on four possessions. They all came in the second half of a victory against Oklahoma, as Self talked with Fred Hoiberg earlier in the week, with the Chicago Bulls coach suggesting the offense might have potential for the Jayhawks.

One can see some of the advantages quickly. With two players stationed in the corners, KU went to a two-man game with Mason dribbling, the big (Ellis in this case) setting a high ball screen around the elbow and another shooter stationed on the opposite wing.

The key comes on the drive. If a defender helps, Mason can kick out for an open three. If no one helps, he should have a one-on-one opportunity to attack the basket.

KU’s first possession went like this: Mason drove. Oklahoma didn’t help. Mason was fouled on a layup attempt. Two free throws KU.


It was similar the second time down: Graham rejected the ball screen and drove right. The help came late. Foul Oklahoma. Two free throws KU.


KU’s third possession was a layup after a steal, but a fourth one showed the other option. Mason beat his man off the dribble and forced a defender to come help. He passed to the corner, where Wayne Selden was left wide open for a three.


In four trips, KU’s four-guard look went on a 9-1 run, turning a six-point deficit into a two-point lead.

“I think we actually had a few good possessions,” Mason said. “Maybe that’s why coach thought of the idea and wanted to do it this year.”

Self sees it this way: A four-guard lineup could help KU get its best players on the floor. It could give the Jayhawks another playmaker out there while spacing things out to allow more opportunities for perimeter shooters.

There are downsides, of course. Self has always believed basketball is a game of easy baskets, and KU’s offense wouldn’t be scheming to get as many shots near the rim for its big men. Playing four small guys also could present issues on the defensive glass, which has been an area Self’s teams usually dominate.

Self is ready to try it out, believing Tuesday is a good time for a test run. He’s also not abandoning what he’s previously done, as most of KU’s practices still run with the team’s typical three-out, two-in scheme.

Still, Self isn’t ruling out the possibility that his team’s best lineup could be one with four guards. As of now, he’s envisioning that KU will have two bigs in for about 25-30 minutes each game, with the rest of the time taken by a four-out, one-in look.

“I think this will be a team that needs to have balance,” Self said of scoring inside and outside, “but I see us being a perimeter-oriented team more so than an interior-oriented team.”

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

No. 3 Kansas vs. Washburn (exhibition)

P, No., Kansas, Ht., Yr., 2015-16 PPG

F, 33, Landen Lucas, 6-10, Sr., 5.8

F, 15, Carlton Bragg, 6-10, So., 3.8

G, 11, Josh Jackson, 6-8, Fr., N/A

G, 4, Devonte' Graham, 6-2, Jr., 11.3

G, 0, Frank Mason, 5-11, Sr., 12.9

P, No., Washburn, Ht., Yr., 2015-16 PPG

F, 22, Brady Skeens, 6-7, So., 10.4

F, 40, David Salach, 6-7, So., 4.5

G, 5, Javion Blake, 6-3, So., 13.4

G, 32, Emeka Ogbonna, 6-2, So. 0.9

G, 3, Randall Smith, 6-0, Jr., 9.9

▪ WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence

▪ TV/RADIO: Time Warner Cable SportsChannel; KCSP (610 AM)

▪ ABOUT KANSAS: The Jayhawks open a season of high expectations with Tuesday’s exhibition game at Allen Fieldhouse. KU is ranked No. 2 in USA Today preseason coaches poll and third in the Associated Press ranking, which is not surprising considering the team returns three starters from last year’s 33-5 squad. It also will be the unofficial debut for guard Josh Jackson, who is the nation’s top-ranked freshman.

▪ ABOUT WASHBURN: The Ichabods begin a brutal exhibition schedule with Tuesday’s game in Lawrence. After that, Washburn plays at Kansas State on Friday, then at Oklahoma on Monday. This will be the final trip to the Fieldhouse for Washburn coach Bob Chipman, who will retire after the season following 38 years with the school. His 788 victories are 17th all-time among NCAA coaches at all levels.

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