University of Kansas

How KU's offense, in two years, became more like Villanova's

Bill Self made an important point on Tuesday, saying words that not long ago would have seemed out of place.

The Kansas basketball coach was asked about his team's Saturday matchup with Villanova in the Final Four, and his response could be summed up this way: The teams basically mirror each other.

"They are going to guard man-to-man. They are going to play four guards the vast majority of the time," Self said. "The differences, I don't think, are that great."

And that's quite the change from two years ago when the teams last met.

Back in 2016 — during the Elite Eight — the Jayhawks featured a two-big lineup against the Wildcats' four-guard look anchored by center Daniel Ochefu.

KU lost that game 64-59, in what coaches believed was an uncharacteristic offensive effort. Perry Ellis had one of his worst games. Wayne Selden's shot was off as well.

But a transition started that offseason. KU assistant coach Norm Roberts said it began in preseason practices, with Self keeping an open mind.

And after spending 15 years alongside the coach — while on four different staffs — it's this part of Self that Roberts respects most.

"He's unique in this way: He wants suggestions," Roberts said. "It's not like, 'We're going to do this, and I'm going to play this way.' He is flexible."

The lineup wasn't working

Self envisioned Carlton Bragg playing alongside Landen Lucas in the post, with talented wing Josh Jackson anchoring the 3 spot on KU's 2016-17 roster.

Those plans changed, though, once Self started watching the team's workouts.

"We stunk with two big guys," Roberts said. "We weren't very good."

So, in one drill, Self called a change-up. He told Jackson to switch to the 4 position, telling the team to go with that a few times up and down the floor.

The improvement was noticeable.

"He goes, 'Shoot, I really like this,'" Roberts said. "'This is better than what we were doing.'"

KU's switch to four guards could be seen as an incremental step or leap of faith, depending on your perspective.

The Jayhawks' previous team — the one that lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight — had tinkered with more of a pick-and-pop style. Though Ellis wasn't a guard, the staff had changed up the playbook to play to his strengths, which included getting him open space at the free-throw line so he could either attempt a mid-range shot or drive.

Self had also experimented with four guards in the tiniest of samples. Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg visited his office one week that year — Hoiberg's daughter attends KU — and suggested that a four-guard approach might have potential for the Jayhawks.

The next game, Self gave it a try for four possessions during a 9-1 run against Oklahoma. The Jayhawks never played it again that season.

Self, until then, had little motivation to do anything too drastic in his then-13 years at KU. The Jayhawks always seemed to have an endless supply of big men, so playing inside-out often meant naturally working to the team's strengths.

The formula, he believed, had to change last year. KU's best chance at winning big was with one forward on the floor instead of two.

Some non-negotiables stayed the same. Self still preached to his team the value of defending and rebounding and hustle plays.

"But the way to get to that goal may change a little bit," Roberts said, "and he's willing to take a different path if he has to."

Jackson thrived in his new role, providing strong defense and rebounding on one end and an offensive mismatch on the other.

KU's four-guard progression went even further this season. Lacking a player of Jackson's versatility, Self doubled down on his offense, hoping his team would create more headaches for opponents with Svi Mykhailiuk shooting threes than they would experience themselves while playing small.

The comparison isn't perfect. But squint hard enough, and one can see how this 2018 KU team is a bit like 2016 Villanova.

KU spaces its offense around a back-to-the-basket player in Udoka Azubuike. Roberts also notes that guards Devonté Graham and Ryan Arcidiacono (who was on that Villanova team) are similar in their shooting abilities.

"We do play quite a bit alike," Roberts said.

And that's likely to change again next season.

KU's big-man stable has been replenished

Memphis transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson will be eligible next season. Azubuike has a chance to return, while rotation players Silvio De Sousa and Mitch Lightfoot will join McDonald's All-American David McCormack on next year's roster.

Though nothing is guaranteed, KU appears to be headed for another shift next season.

"We're going to have bigger guys. We're going to be big again," Roberts said. "But at least now, we can be versatile and play both ways."

In other words ... Saturday's game could be the last time for a while that Villanova and KU will be playing comparable styles.

If Roberts has learned anything, though, it's this: Self could always change course again.

"We could have big guys. We could have small guys," Roberts said. "Let's just win."

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