University of Kansas

How Bill Self beat the Big 12 at its own game

The Kansas men's basketball team has a statistical doppelganger, and the proof of that is below.

2017-18 KU comparison
Kenpom.com

This comparison shows two teams that are strikingly close while appearing to have guard-oriented attacks. They both shoot it well, don't turn it over often, have some issues rebounding but make up for some of that defensively by avoiding fouls.

This season's KU team is on the left. And when I asked Twitter users if they could guess the team on the right, it took a few minutes before someone came up with the correct answer: last season's Iowa State Cyclones.

This is pretty remarkable if you think about it.

Two seasons ago, in 1,540 minutes of gametime, KU ran its four-guard lineup on four possessions ... total. Before the team's game at Oklahoma, Self had talked to former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who'd suggested a four-guard look might have potential for the Jayhawks; Self used it during a 9-1 run in that February game, then didn't bring it back the rest of the season.

Jump ahead to last season. Self wanted to play with two bigs again before circumstances changed. Carlton Bragg wasn't developing as expected, while Josh Jackson emerged as a playmaking guard who could handle the responsibility of defending a post player. KU shifted primarily to a four-guard look, with Self creating a new offense to take advantage of his players' strengths.

The plan wasn't for that same sort of style to carry over to this year. Here's Self talking last April about whether he was committed to a four-guard lineup with the 2017-18 Jayhawks.

“Not at all,” Self said then. “I’m committed to playing our best players and really our personnel, at least to me, will be quite a bit different next year because you won’t have a 6-8 guard that can play inside."

Self was right. This team had no Jackson. It had no natural fit to guard an opposing 4 man who played in the post.

The coach, though, wasn't seeing the complete picture when thinking about the problem this way — something he admits when talking about his team now.

KU faced more curveballs at the start of this season. Billy Preston never played a regular-season game, while Dwight Coleby transferred to Western Kentucky and Jack Whitman left the program in the summer.

With fewer frontcourt players, Self had to adjust again. And he also had to come to grips with a basic reality before proceeding.

KU didn't have a perfect fit to guard an opponent's 4 man, but that didn't matter. Self's goal was going to be making it even tougher on the opponent, which was going to have to make a lumbering big man play defense against one of his guards.

"Taking it to a whole extreme saying we don't need a 4 man," Self said. "We're just going to play four guards that can shoot."

And KU has succeeded with that thanks to Self and his staff's creativity.

The Jayhawks are running more perimeter-oriented plays than they ever have before. Many of them have involved faking ball screens — Texas Tech coach Chris Beard called them "ghost" screens — to create confusion in hopes of freeing up a three-point shooter.

This has to be frustrating for every other coach in the Big 12.

KU has a clear recruiting advantage, which most often ends up taking the form of big men. The Jayhawks have had years when future pros Cole Aldrich and Jeff Withey were fifth in the rotation for minutes, and it's likely easier for other Big 12 coaches to shrug off not winning the league when trying to make up a talent discrepancy.

This year, though? KU was the rest of the Big 12.

KU was the team playing small. KU was the team giving up something defensively to be better on offense. KU, from nearly every statistical measure, was 2016-17 Iowa State.

And yet, The Streak goes on. Self wins with big men, then wins without them. He wins by playing unlike anyone else, then wins by copying the style of the teams that couldn't beat him before.

He wins, most importantly, by efficiently assessing his team's strengths then shifting his gameplan to take advantage of what his players do best.

It all has resulted in this annual truth: Situations might change for KU, but the winning never seems to.

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