Bill Self admits this will be a tough pattern to keep up.
In Kansas’ 86-80 victory over TCU on Friday, the coach played only seven guys while also dealing with Josh Jackson’s foul problems.
“I think seven’s not enough,” Self said of his rotation. “I think eight’s our number with this team.”
Yet, there were valid reasons to limit the bench against TCU. KU fell behind by 10 points seven minutes in, meaning it had to battle from behind for most of the first half. Self also opted for experience in the Big 12 opener while leaving freshman Mitch Lightfoot on the bench.
“That wasn’t a knock to Mitch at all,” Self said, “but we know we’ve got to get Mitch in there some.”
Seeing only seven players in the box score could lead to some worry among KU fans not used to this type of problem. Could the Jayhawks’ fatal flaw potentially be a shorter bench than they’ve had in years past?
Here’s the truth: A lack of depth is probably not as much of an issue as it appears … at least when it comes to the most important games of the season.
Evidence comes from recent history. Ken Pomeroy logs a team’s percentage of bench minutes, and though a deeper team would seem to be better suited for the NCAA Tournament, that hasn’t been the case.
In the last five Final Fours, there have been two teams that have ranked in the top 100 in bench minutes: 2012-13 Wichita State and 2014-15 Kentucky.
How many Final Four teams ranked 300th or worse in bench minutes? Actually, 12 of the 20 — 60 percent — have been among the bottom 50 nationally. That includes the 2011-12 Jayhawks, who advanced to the national championship while ranking 314th in the statistic (KU, if you were wondering, is 308th this year).
So even if common sense tells us a shorter bench is a bad thing, perhaps that isn’t the case.
KU center Landen Lucas sees positives and negatives from both.
“Having a lot of guys could be good, but playing this way could be good too, because everybody understands their role, understands what their minutes are looking like,” Lucas said. “At times (with a deeper bench), it can be kind of confusing not knowing if this is the game we play a lot or not much at all. But I think (this year) everybody understands their role, understands that if they do get in, it’s for this amount of time and this is what they are expected to do in that time. We can build off of that.”
Just think to last year as an example. When KU lost a road game at Oklahoma State on Jan. 19, Cheick Diallo started with Lucas playing 13 minutes off the bench. The 5 position wasn’t giving consistent production, and Self himself was having a hard time figuring out which rotation was best for his team. Eventually, KU had its best stretch of the season after Self inserted Lucas in the starting lineup while allowing him to play through mistakes.
The Jayhawks already have all that sorted out this year. Lucas doesn’t have to wonder if he will get playing time; barring foul trouble, he’ll be in there 30 minutes each contest. Same goes for Frank Mason, Devonté Graham and Jackson.
The others are nearly as set in their roles. Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick are likely splitting about 50 minutes per game, while Carlton Bragg knows he’s guaranteed about 15-20 with more coming if Lucas gets early whistles. Even Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby can be comfortable knowing that when they come in, they won’t be asked to do much offensively. Simply defend and rebound, and they’ll be performing their roles needed for this year’s team.
Though having nine scholarship players might not affect KU’s Final Four chances much, it still could hurt the Jayhawks’ pursuit of a 13th straight Big 12 title. As Friday showed, most road games result in at least one player battling foul trouble, which means Self will likely have to continue his juggling skills when it comes to his rotation.
It’s been a luxury in years past for Self to be able to put in reliable big men even after others have gotten two first-half fouls. That’s not an option this season, meaning away games could be more difficult to navigate.
The good news for KU: Despite what happens in the conference schedule, a shorter rotation hasn’t kept talented teams from making deep March runs in the recent past.
As far as “flaws” go, this might not be a bad one to have.