University of Kansas

How a late-season makeover could help KU with its most pressing problem

KU coach Bill Self previews TCU game: "We have to guard the ball better"

Jayhawks coach Bill Self talks about what his team has to improve on to win Saturday at TCU.
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Jayhawks coach Bill Self talks about what his team has to improve on to win Saturday at TCU.

Kansas has a defensive issue at the moment. That much is clear.

You can talk yourself into other concerns about the Jayhawks, but most fall flat in the face of evidence. KU too reliant on the perimeter? That might make the offense more volatile, but it hasn’t hurt the team’s big-picture numbers, with the Jayhawks ranking fifth nationally in shooting and eighth in adjusted efficiency.

No, the biggest long-term question revolves around how KU will get stops. A Bill Self team had never allowed 1.18 points per possession to consecutive opponents until this week, breaking a 517-game span where the Jayhawks had at the least followed a bad defensive effort with a good one.

It’s not difficult to see why the Jayhawks are struggling. KU actually held both Texas and Texas Tech’s shooting numbers to respectable levels while laboring in two other important areas: rebounding and turnovers.

These deficiencies make sense to an extent. KU has a thin rotation, which limits the energy that can be expended on defense. With that, head coach Self has often gone in the second half to playing “pack-it-in” zone while hoping to get his main guys a bit of a breather. That style is unlikely to create havoc, which was a huge key to the team’s early-season success.

KU basketball coach Bill Self says his team needs to build an ‘identity’ and show some toughness.

With rebounding, the Jayhawks need to be focused and scrappy to make up for a lack of size. They were neither of those the last two games, which led to the Longhorns grabbing 40 percent of their misses and the Red Raiders 46 percent of theirs.

The easiest solution, though, is one that’s hard to envision now, because it doesn’t involve the known. Instead, it involves a fuzzy gaze into an unclear future.

There’s been no official word yet on Billy Preston or Silvio De Sousa, but from Self’s comments on Thursday, it seems like both will have their situations resolved in the next two weeks at worst. At that point, the coaching staff should at least be able to move forward knowing which pieces are available and which one aren’t.

And here’s what’s important: If those additions come, the Jayhawks could quickly try to transition much of their base lineup back to a two-big-man look — and do that with the main goal of trying to help the defense instead of the offense.

KU sophomore guard Sam Cunliffe talked Thursday about his role coming off the bench for the Jayhawks.

Let’s talk Preston first. Rivals recruiting analyst Eric Bossi, when talking about Preston after he committed to KU, said one of Preston’s greatest strengths was his rebounding ability. In three August exhibition games in Italy, Preston’s energy level wasn’t always where Self wanted it to be, but Preston still showed both the athleticism and size needed to be effective on the glass.

So think about KU’s defense now with Preston next to Udoka Azubuike. Self suddenly has options, which could include more extensive use of a 2-3 zone defense, which hasn’t been awful outside the team’s inability to rebound.

Even playing man, there seems to be a better path to defensive stability. KU won’t have to play up the floor or gamble for steals if it can play good first-shot defense and snag the rebound, and perhaps that’s the “identity” this team could find moving forward.

De Sousa is more of a wild card. He could be cleared soon, but he’s behind with KU’s playbook and schemes after arriving on campus last week. For him, getting extended minutes before early February seems like a stretch.

But by the end of the season? When KU is playing its most important games? The defensive worries of January could seem like a distant memory then.

The path to that looks like this: 1. Get positive news from the NCAA soon; 2. Have Self call a midseason audible with his playing style.

The way there is uncertain now and risky in the future. But it remains the likeliest scenario for this particular defense to go from culpable to capable over the last three months.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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