If my notes are correct, it’s been 13 games since Bill Self strayed from a four-guard look and played two bigs together. And that didn’t always go so well.
KU was up by nearly 50 against Toledo on Nov. 28, and Self figured it’d be a good time to try out Mitch Lightfoot and Udoka Azubuike in the same lineup. At one point, the coach called one of his standard plays, and Lightfoot couldn’t shake free from his defender at the top of the key, forcing Lagerald Vick to improvise and drive while putting up a guarded shot attempt.
Self yelled at Lightfoot to get himself open, then tried the same play the next possession. This time, Azubuike didn’t get great position inside, then also didn’t go after a pass aggressively, leading to a near-turnover when the ball deflected off the bottom of the backboard.
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This isn’t written to pick on KU’s big men for mistakes two months ago. Instead, it illustrates a reality: Doing something you’re not familiar with can be difficult.
And that’s what KU faces midseason as Self talked Thursday about how the Jayhawks shifted this week to play two true forwards together in practice a portion of the time.
This is an interesting spot for both KU and Self one-third of the way through conference play. The Jayhawks are 5-1 with momentum built up following their biggest victory of the season on Monday at West Virginia.
Then again, KU is far from perfect. The team has won its five league games by a combined 21 points, and while Self often finds ways to coax close wins out of his teams, the lack of dominance in home games against Iowa State and Kansas State could lead us to believe this team isn’t one of the elites.
The main struggle, clearly, is defense. According to advanced metrics, this is Self’s worst defensive team in his 15 seasons at KU, so trying to get a second big guy on the floor makes sense.
KU has been decent with first-shot defense, but a team needs more than that to be successful. Because of depth issues, the Jayhawks haven’t had the energy to create a high number of turnovers, and because they’re playing small, they’ve been crushed on the defensive glass in conference play.
So the easiest solution has always been this: Get another defensive rebounder on the floor more often. The “force-one-bad-shot-and-grab-the-miss” defense has been a staple for Self through the years, and it certainly seems like a viable play if the just-eligible De Sousa is able to continue his rapid development (and more of an option if Billy Preston gets cleared by the NCAA, though that seemingly appears to be getting less likely by the day).
This change, though, could be riskier than it appears. KU might fix some of its defensive issues with two bigs on the floor, but that setup also could hurt the team’s offense, which has developed a nice punch-counterpunch with four talented outside shooters surrounding the efficient Azubuike inside.
Some offensive struggles should be expected when KU rolls out the two-big offense here soon. Like the examples above, there will be times when players aren’t in the right spots or don’t execute perfectly, mostly because their repetitions are limited on those plays.
If nothing else, though, having an ability to go “big” gives Self another option. He might use it 15 minutes in some games and not at all in other matchups.
Playing a new way isn’t without downside, though. It’s possible that KU’s improved rebounding and defense won’t be enough to make up for subpar offense playing an unfamiliar style, which could leave the Jayhawks in a worse spot than they were before.
It’s all a long way of saying this: KU is happy to have De Sousa, as he can lengthen the team’s rotation while making it more versatile.
There’s no guarantee though — especially in this particular case — that two big men will be better than one.