Forget the loss for a second.
West Virginia defeating Kansas 85-69 on Tuesday is temporary — something that might sting the Jayhawks and their fans for a few days before not eventually meaning much in the season’s final outcome.
The bigger concern has to be the way KU faltered. Time after time — especially late — West Virginia’s so-so halfcourt offense was able to create layups and dunks.
And this, you can be sure, will drive KU coach Bill Self crazy for the next few days.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
It wasn’t just one type of play either.
When Self rewatches the tape, he’ll see a bluffed-ball-screen result in an open pass and easy shot ...
a straight-line drive turn into a layup when no one came over to help ...
and a screen in the post clear the entire lane for a shot at the rim ...
and that’s just from one five-minute segment in the second half.
“Tonight (the defense) wasn’t very good,” Self said. “So I don’t feel great about anything tonight.”
The final tally was this: West Virginia made 16 combined dunks and layups while succeeding in the one location where Self’s defenses usually thrive.
The Mountaineers were so effective that it forced Self into his final trick: a 2-3 zone defense. It was only the second time KU had played it all year.
That didn’t even help. West Virginia’s quick ball movement and spacing created open corner threes and more rim shots as the Mountaineers closed strong.
So where to start defensively?
It’s complicated, as KU center Landen Lucas explained well in the postgame press conference. As you’d expect, he started by saying the big men needed to do more (Read: “I’m a senior leader, so I’ll take the blame”) before talking more about what’s needed for improvement.
“Sometimes it can be guards keeping people in front of them. Sometimes it’s the bigs making sure that we’re not letting them catch it in easy positions to score, fighting through ball screens, things like that,” Lucas said. “It’s not just one thing you can really point at, but it’s something we definitely need to have in the back of our minds during practice so that we can work on it, because that’s too many easy baskets in one game.”
For Self, the fix doesn’t appear to be simple. Frank Mason and Devonté Graham are reigning all-Big 12 defenders, but they’re also humans that are being asked to be the main cogs of a fast-paced, high-scoring offense. Lucas is a smart defender who can challenge shots inside, but he’ll never be the dominant shot-blocker that Cole Aldrich or Jeff Withey were.
And Jackson, though he’s uber-talented offensively, is getting beaten too many times even if he’s playing up a position at the 4. Part of that appears to be focus, as he should be athletic enough to handle most assignments he faces.
The hope, of course, is Self. He’s had worse defensive pieces than this and coached them to be better before.
This year, KU probably has had a bit of bad luck when it comes to defending jumpshots. And playing a seven-man rotation doesn’t help, as KU doesn’t have the depth to allow Self to tell his big men to hack any player who has an uncontested layup; Bragg and Lucas need to stay in the game.
Again, though, this is probably the way KU fans should want it. The Jayhawks have an elite offense. Their transition game is second-to-none. And though they’ve struggled on defense — falling to 38th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency measure after Tuesday’s loss — they’ve still got a future hall-of-famer who has built his coaching reputation on finding ways to keep other teams from scoring.
This might be Self’s greatest defensive challenge at KU. But he’s definitely earned the right to be trusted.