University of Kansas

The secret is out on KU basketball’s defensive weakness

Kansas can’t ignore this anymore.

This isn’t a minuscule sample size, or one team providing a different look.

The Jayhawks’ three-point defense is an issue. And opponents aren’t trying to hide their gameplan when it comes to attacking KU.

“Coach said one of our objectives was to get a lot of three-point shots,” Louisiana forward Justin Miller said after Friday’s 89-76 loss to KU, “so that’s what happened.”

Listening to the postgame interviews of KU’s non-conference opponents can be refreshing. These guys won’t play KU again later this season, or next year or probably even the year after that. It allows for more honest words and less fear of feelings getting hurt.

So Miller wasn’t afraid to speak up Friday night.

“(Coaches) said the bigs from Kansas really, like, hedge hard and don’t really get back to the pop man,” Miller said. “So going into the game, I was looking to get off some open looks.”

He followed through after that.

Miller put up a career-high 22 points against KU ... in the first half alone. His actions were repetitive: set a ball screen, float back to the perimeter, wait for a pass from a teammate, shoot an open three.

“We felt like they were hedging too long,” Louisiana coach Bob Marlin said of KU’s tendencies on film, “and we could always throw it back and get what we wanted.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns — 21 1/2-point underdogs — made this a game because they were able to generate efficient offense from the outside-in. They made 12 of 36 three-pointers, with Marlin believing they could have even shot better based on the looks they created.

So who sparked this way of playing against KU? Vermont, for one, which kept Monday’s game at Allen Fieldhouse close by using a similar strategy with stretch big man Anthony Lamb (24 points).

“Coach said me and him had similar games,” Miller said of Lamb. “He had a successful game against these guys. Just an angle scorer and not really athletic, but just do what we can do.”

Both those guys can shoot. And undermanned teams going up against KU are likely to have that sort of player on their roster who can attempt to expose the deficiencies of KU’s slow-recovering big men by shooting over them on the perimeter.

Kansas coach Bill Self, when asked about Miller, mostly lamented the team’s scouting report defense. He said Udoka Azubuike, in particular, didn’t play to tendencies on the first few possessions while knowing that Miller had shooting range.

Self, a few feet away, even tried to show Azubuike what he should be doing by raising both arms on the sideline during Louisiana’s third possession. It didn’t help. Azubuike left his arms down, allowing Miller to make a three over the top for the Cajuns’ first points.

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ESPN screenshot

“He’s guarding a 5 man that’s not as athletic, backs off of him and gives him an uncontested three or lets him drive right around him,” Self said. “That’s the kind of stuff we have to eliminate.”

Self’s frustration comes especially because he knows Azubuike can have better focus. Twice, when he was switched on a Louisiana guard on Friday, Azubuike shuffled well to stay in front of that man, even blocking a shot once behind the three-point line.

Those same sorts of skills, Self believes, should translate when it comes to getting back to his man after ball screens.

Louisiana wasn’t just taking advantage of an individual here, though. It was playing to a defensive philosophy that KU has stuck with even as opponent threes have piled up.

KU, as Marlin mentioned, has its big men stick with the pick-and-roll ballhandler a long time. Though KU adjusted its defense a little in the second half — helping more on the perimeter with defenders stunting at shooters from other spots — Louisiana still was able to attempt 19 second-half threes while following through with its strategy.

And here’s where the numbers get crazy: The Cajuns’ 36 three-point attempts on Friday only continued the trajectory of where KU’s defensive numbers are trending.

The Jayhawks, in their last four regular-season games, have allowed more three-point attempts (125) than two-point attempts (118). Not only that, opponents have made 41 percent of those outside shots.

It’ll be a topic to examine the rest of this season. Maybe KU’s bigs can focus on better recovery. Maybe coaches will have them help a little less. Maybe — and this would be drastic — KU will start switching more like many NBA teams have done to counter the increase in perimeter shots.

Whatever the case ... KU’s last four games should end any secrecy about the best way to attack the team’s defense.

Just listen to those who are talking after the game.

“We shot more threes than we normally do,” Marlin said. “That was the plan.”

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Jesse Newell

Jesse Newell covers University of Kansas athletics for The Star.

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