University of Kansas

This previous KU weakness should be the team’s greatest defensive strength in 2018-19

Udoka Azubuike explains his decision to return to KU

Center Udoka Azubuike, on June 10, 2018, explains his decision to return to Kansas instead of staying in the NBA Draft.
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Center Udoka Azubuike, on June 10, 2018, explains his decision to return to Kansas instead of staying in the NBA Draft.

Kansas coach Bill Self was not used to this.

In nearly every game last season, Self’s Jayhawks were beaten on the defensive glass. Perhaps the best example was an 84-79 home loss to Oklahoma State, as the Cowboys grabbed 16 of their 34 missed shots.

The quotes from Self afterward were about what you’d expect.

“That’s our Achilles’ heel all year long and was today,” Self said that of the Jayhawks’ rebounding. “Every scouting report is, ‘Let’s outathletic them going to the glass.’ It’s what (the Cowboys) did.”

KU had some better days on the boards — most notably in an 85-81 overtime victory over Duke in the Elite Eight — but it wasn’t enough to keep the Jayhawks from some negative history. The team finished 283rd nationally in defensive rebounding rate, which was the worst ranking for any KU team in the Self era.

There were obvious reasons the Jayhawks struggled here. Self wisely chose to go to a four-guard lineup to take advantage of his outside shooting, which boosted the team’s offense at the cost of leaving it more vulnerable defensively with one fewer big man on the floor.

Knowing all this, though, sets up something important as fans look ahead to 2018-19:

This KU team shouldn’t just improve on the defensive glass; instead, it probably should be the best team Self has ever had in that area.

A look to the past can help explain why. Self’s best defensive rebounding team was 2010-11, which ranked 15th nationally in D-board percentage.

Here are KU’s best rebounders that season, along with their percentile rankings from BartTorvik.com.



DR%Natl. percentile
Thomas Robinson20.595th
Markieff Morris16.379th
Marcus Morris14.265th

The Jayhawks’ strong defensive rebounding numbers were almost all based on these three players; no other rotation member ranked above the 50th national percentile in this area.

Robinson, as a sophomore, played 32 percent of KU’s minutes that year, so even his impact wasn’t as large as it might appear from the chart. KU’s best defensive rebounding team, in essence, was built on two starters and a reserve being solid at clearing misses.

Now, let’s compare. Here are the defensive rebounding percentages for KU’s 2018-19 frontcourt players, based on their most recent college seasons.



DR%Natl. percentile
Silvio De Sousa25.1100th
Dedric Lawson22.899th
Udoka Azubuike20.896th
K.J. Lawson19.393rd

We can start with the caveats first.

• De Sousa averaged just 8 minutes per game, so his percentage-based numbers will almost certainly drop off some next season with more playing time.

• Dedric and K.J. Lawson’s stats are from the 2016-17 season at Memphis, and they’ll likely find it harder to be as productive in the Big 12.

• Udoka Azubuike’s defensive rebounding numbers probably were inflated last season because he was often KU’s only true rebounder on the floor.

Having said all that ... this is still crazy. While Self’s previous best defensive rebounding team had one 90th-percentiler, this team has four returning, and that doesn’t even consider the impact of freshman David McCormack, who at 6 feet 10 and 265 pounds would appear to have an ideal body type to excel with the skill.

It’s no secret by now that Self values toughness in his teams. He prioritizes getting extra possessions, hoping his guys can track down loose balls on offense while also limiting opponents to one shot defensively.

The coach, in this aspect, should be back in his comfort zone this season.

Going back to a primary two-big lineup will do more than make KU a more interior-oriented team on offense; it also should allow Self to get two high-quality defensive rebounders on the floor with almost any combination he chooses.

The 2018-19 Jayhawks certainly will have their own obstacles to overcome. That might be outside shooting. It could be inexperience.

It shouldn’t, however, be defensive rebounding.

Consider that facet an Achilles’ heel no more.

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