The Bill Self quote genuinely surprised me — something that doesn’t happen often with the coach now in his 15th year with Kansas.
While talking to Spectrum Sports during its Late Night in the Phog broadcast two weeks ago, Self was asked about his team’s rotation this season with only three true post players.
“We are limited with bigs,” Self said. “So we’ll play ‘big’ (with two big men) 70 percent of the time, I would think because those will be our best players, our best lineup.”
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That seemed … optimistic. I’ll spare the gory math details, but what Self suggested would mean 68 combined minutes each game from Udoka Azubuike, Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot.
So I asked Self how he could potentially envision that 70 percent number playing out.
“That was really before we started practicing, so I think that number has gone down a little bit to about 50 (percent),” Self said Friday with a smile, “but I think we’ve got to play big at least 20 minutes a game at least.”
There are reasons for this. Self believes Azubuike and Preston should be two of his team’s best players, so naturally, letting them be on the court together seems like a smart move.
There’s something else interesting going on too, though. Self made reference Friday to the national championship game last season and the two teams left at the end: Gonzaga and North Carolina.
What did they have in common? Dominant big men.
“You’ve got to be able to control the paint and get easy baskets,” Self said. “And you’re shooting in domes (in the NCAA Tournament) and you may not shoot as good a three-point percentage ... there’s a lot of factors that go on that there’s such an advantage to have multiple bigs.”
Self, of course, is showing some recency bias here. The 2016 NCAA champion, Villanova, had a four-guard lineup filled with outside shooters centered around a big man. If that sounds familiar — it’s exactly the type of style that helped KU to a 31-5 record last season.
Unfortunately for coaches, the NCAA Tournament doesn’t have a secret elixir. It’s tough to win six games in a row, so the best way to succeed is simply to build a great team and hope it’s playing well during the season’s most important weeks.
One can understand why last year’s Elite Eight loss might have led Self to second-guessing, though. The Jayhawks’ 5-for-25 three-point shooting — the second-worst mark in the team’s 36 games — wasn’t the only reason for last year’s defeat against Oregon, but it’s hard to not consider it a major factor.
So let’s get to detective work with Self’s new proposal. If we take the 50 percent number, KU will need to get to 60 combined minutes from those three bigs.
Let’s start with Azubuike. Self said Friday that the sophomore would have an optimistic projection for 25 to 30 minutes per game, with his main concern being foul trouble (though conditioning could play a factor as well). For comparison purposes, Landen Lucas played 25.6 minutes per game as a starter last season.
I’ll go with 25 for Azubuike here, though even that could be wishful thinking considering he averaged a foul every 4.7 minutes as a freshman.
Next up is Preston, who is a wild card partly because, as Self says, “his most consistent thing that he does is that he’s inconsistent.”
There’s more to this, though, as it often takes time for post players to become acclimated at KU. Since 2009-10 (as far back as Basketball Reference keeps minutes-per-game numbers), KU’s top freshman big man with playing time was Joel Embiid at 23.1 per game, with no other true big topping 20.
So will Preston break the mold? If any circumstance would require it, this could be it.
“Coach Self told me he’s going to let me play that 4 position — perimeter — about 60 percent of the time,” Preston said. “The other 40 percent, he wants me to bring a presence inside, because we’re not that big. And I told him that I could do that.”
Let’s go with 24 for Preston, though that still could be high or low based on your perspective.
Then there’s Lightfoot, who had foul issues of his own last season while averaging 4 minutes. He also struggled during four exhibition games in Italy while wearing a protective mask that affected his vision.
Our numbers would leave 11-19 minutes for him, meaning KU needs him to be much more consistent this season.
These projections all could change, just like they did for Self in the last two weeks. KU’s “small ball” could continue to impress the coach to the point where today’s 50 percent number is altered again.
For now, though, the plan is to push the big-man minutes past Self’s comfort level of the past.
“We need to get to the point we can play 6-10, 6-10,” Self said. “And if we’re able to do that for 50 or 70 percent of the game, I think our chances will elevate quite a bit on us being a great team by February.”