University of Kansas

Against KU’s defense, here’s a strategy that’s worked so far

KU coach Bill Self tells on how the Jayhawks defend the three-point shot

KU coach Bill Self has come to expect a barrage of three-point shots from opposing teams. Opponents attempt more threes against the Jayhawks than any other team in the league. Self fills us in on how he likes to defend them.
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KU coach Bill Self has come to expect a barrage of three-point shots from opposing teams. Opponents attempt more threes against the Jayhawks than any other team in the league. Self fills us in on how he likes to defend them.

Before we talk about a potential “magic number” against Kansas’ defense, let’s start here: Jordan Sperber doesn’t see much wrong in the video he’s been sent.

The college basketball X’s and O’s analyst — and former video coordinator at New Mexico State and Nevada — says every KU defender basically does their job correctly in this first-half clip from a recent game at TCU. After a Horned Frogs ball screen, Mitch Lightfoot aggressively hedges to make the point guard change directions, and Dedric Lawson helps out by “tagging” Lightfoot’s man, bumping him in the lane to give time for Lightfoot to recover.

Lawson maybe stays in the paint an instant too long. The next pass goes to the man he was originally guarding, Lat Mayen, who is able to rise up for a mostly uncontested three; Lawson can’t quite get out to challenge the shot that goes through.

Sperber makes it clear this is a common coaching philosophy; this type of hard hedging remains as a default ball-screen coverage for many high-major programs.

This play, though, also illuminates a truth regarding this way of playing defense.

“Hedging is going to give up threes at a higher rate than more passive ball-screen coverages,” Sperber said, “even with proper execution.”

To be clear, there are many ways to teach effective defense, with varying beliefs on how much a team should try to limit threes.

Coach Bill Self, throughout his 16-year KU tenure, admits that he’s rarely strayed from an old-school mantra he’s talked about before: The key to winning is to get easy baskets and not give them up.

“A lot of it is philosophy,” Self said, “and how you think things should be defended.”

These thoughts have helped lead to a striking defensive pattern this year.

The teams that have had the most offensive success against the Jayhawks? They’ve mostly followed a trend shown best in this graph from Bart Torvik’s college basketball site.

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 2.15.54 PM.png

To put what’s above in the most simple terms: When teams have a higher three-point rate against KU (in other words when a higher percentage of a team’s shots are three-point attempts), the Jayhawks’ defense (adjusted for opponent and location) has been worse.

Individual results give more context. The best game against KU’s defense came from Texas during its 80-78 loss at Allen Fieldhouse, when 34 of the Longhorns’ 69 shots were from three-point range.

“In this league, you’re going to see a lot of different (ball-screen) coverages, depending on the team,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said after the game. “Tonight, the way Kansas defended it, they always do such a great job with their hands, but we tried to put our shooters in spots if, the guard could deliver the ball, they would get an open shot.”

Smart didn’t back off that game plan two weeks later when Texas defeated KU, 73-63, in Austin. The Longhorns attempted 28 of their 50 shots from three-point range, posting the fourth-best offensive mark by a KU foe.

The Longhorns also, a few times, looked to attack KU’s hedges (much like TCU did) to get open spot-ups.

“Kansas does a really good job of helping and covering for each other, but I thought we found our teammates really well,” Smart said. “It wasn’t the cleanest pick-and-roll offensive game for us, but we were able to create a decent amount of good shots.”

Stanford also nearly pulled off an Allen Fieldhouse upset while attempting 54 percent of its shots from three. After a competitive 89-76 loss to KU, Louisiana coach Bob Marlin said in the post-game press conference his team “shot more threes than we normally do. That was the plan.” The Ragin’ Cajuns fired up 57 percent of their field goals from behind the arc, which helped them notch the fifth-best offense against KU’s defense.

It’s important to note here the standard caveat about correlation not equaling causation. Just because KU’s three-point rate defense and adjusted defensive efficiency appear to impact each other, this does not mean one number is directly causing the other.

We can still point out KU is an extreme here, as Torvik’s NCAA leaderboard shows only eight teams with a stronger relationship between these two stats.

KU3PR.png

For the most part, Self has continued this year with the thought of discouraging easy twos. One reason for that is personnel, he said; this roster doesn’t have the elite shot-blockers of past years, and having that luxury can allow a team more wiggle room when it comes to forcing other teams to drive instead of putting up outside shots.

“I’ve never been comfortable just running at (three-point shooters), because I always thought that would put your big guys at risk,” Self said. “But as you continue to move forward, our team is obviously probably doing more of that (running at shooters) than we used to.”

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising how this has turned out statistically for KU.

The Jayhawks are strong inside, ranking 25th nationally in two-point percentage defense. They also have kept teams away from the basket, ranking 19th when it comes to limiting shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com.

Opponents, though, are taking 42 percent of their shots from three against the Jayhawks — three percentage points higher than any other season Self has coached.

It all leads us to an arbitrary number that, at the least, has been a recipe for opponent success so far. There’s no foolproof formula here — and a team without decent three-point shooters might not be able to pull it off — but shooting 45 percent of one’s shots from three against KU has definitely served teams well to this point.

Of the 10 opponents that have hit that three-point rate against the Jayhawks, nine of them have put up top-12 offensive marks against the Jayhawks. Meanwhile, among the 16 schools who didn’t get to that number, only three (Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Arizona State) were able to register an above-average performance against KU’s defense.

Texas Tech, in its earlier game at Allen Fieldhouse, was one of a few outliers as it relates to this tendency. The team hoisted 44 percent of its shots from three but was inefficient overall, losing 79-63 on Feb. 2.

Will Texas Tech coach Chris Beard follow the same process Saturday while hoping for a better result in his team’s home game against KU?

That answer remains unclear, even if this seems less so:

The Red Raiders should have a hard time scoring against Self’s Jayhawks inside.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.

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