University of Kansas

KU’s biggest defensive issue hasn’t gone away. Here’s how Bill Self hopes to fix it

Kansas basketball seems no closer to solving its biggest defensive issue than it was when Louisiana exposed the weakness two weeks ago.

KU cannot defend threes — not against good three-point shooting teams, and, as Saturday’s 90-84 overtime win against Stanford showed, not against bad ones either.

Guard Marcus Garrett admitted that, while watching film on Stanford before the game, “it just seemed like they don’t ever make any shots.” KU coach Bill Self echoed that sentiment Monday, saying the Cardinal was “probably the worst three-point shooting team we have faced this year statistically” before quickly saying that the numbers could always change over time.

The bottom line: They’re both right. Stanford came into the contest not attempting many outside shots, while also hitting only 30 percent of those tries.

So what happened against KU? The team shot more threes (34) than twos (29) while making 12 from the perimeter. Not only that, it was the most three-point attempts that Stanford has shot against any team this decade.

When opponents that don’t like to shoot threes and can’t shoot them go out of their way to fire them at an unprecedented rate ... there’s definitely an issue there that needs correcting.

“I’d say the three-point line is a concern both ways,” Self said of his team Monday.

So what’s the fix here? Self’s answer surprised me, as he sees the problem in a different way than I would have guessed.

The coach starts by saying this: It’s not an easy fix, or KU would have solved it by now. But his thoughts are more on the lead-up to three-point attempts rather than the shots themselves.

Self would like to see his team get out defensively to make other teams uncomfortable. If an opponent is initiating offense 28 feet from the basket instead of 21 feet, it eliminates that player’s ability to shoot the ball. Instead of being in a triple-threat position, that person can only dribble or pass.

So if that happens, Self thinks his perimeter defense will improve as a result.

“We don’t play our man before he catches it, so he catches it in the scoring area, then you’re at his mercy on the shot-fake or whatever,” Self said. “We’ve done a terrible job of pressuring out and making them catch a step further out.”

Self said he showed his players some examples in film where they were too relaxed defensively and also discussed with them previous KU teams who were known for swarming opponents, especially in the first five minutes of games at Allen Fieldhouse.

All that could help, but it’s also interesting because it’s not addressing the actual execution errors that KU faced when allowing open shots Saturday.

After rewatching each of Stanford’s 12 made threes, a pattern became clear: Coach Jerod Haase clearly wanted his players to drive middle, force help, then kick out to the open shooter in the corner.

The final numbers reflected this. Eight of Stanford’s 12 threes came from the corner, which is statistically a higher percentage shot than those above the break, even in the college game.

Two types of breakdowns showed up most frequently. One was diagnosed by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas in real time, as on one drive late in regulation, KU’s Lagerald Vick helped on a Stanford driving guard while leaving Isaac White open in the corner; White had previously made 4 of 6 threes before getting the pass and putting this one in, which gave Stanford a one-point lead.

Bilas spoke for nearly a minute about how Vick should not be helping off a ball-side, corner shooter.

“You see it all the time in college,” Bilas said on the broadcast. “You never see it in the NBA.”

A second flaw seemed to be more effort-based.

On four separate occasions, Stanford was able to get away clean looks from three when Vick did not close out on the shooter quickly enough with high hands. On at least two of those attempts, it appeared he might have affected the shot had he contested it better.

Whether KU’s defensive miscues are during shots or before they’re taken, the concern here is real. Synergy Sports Technology has KU allowing 70 “unguarded, catch-and-shoot” attempts this season — a number that ranks 327th out of 353 NCAA teams.

That’s actually a generous ranking considering the circumstances. The Jayhawks have only played six games, while many others teams have already completed 8, 9, 10 or even 11. KU allowing 11.7 unguarded, catch-and-shoots per game, then, is actually higher than all but three teams nationally.

The Jayhawks’ raw numbers aren’t any more forgiving. KU has allowed more points this year via threes (198) than twos (188) despite teams attempting 53 percent of their shots from inside the arc.

It all gets to a simple truth that remains true, no matter the future opponent.

Giving up open threes — even against poor shooting teams — is not a foundation for defensive success.

Jesse Newell

Jesse Newell covers University of Kansas athletics for The Star.

Related stories from Kansas City Star