University of Kansas

Growing pains have helped KU basketball before. Why that’s less certain for 2019-20

Bill Self on KU’s future and how Auburn ran away with NCAA Tournament win

Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self looked ahead to next season and explained KU's breakdowns in an 89-75 loss to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City.
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Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self looked ahead to next season and explained KU's breakdowns in an 89-75 loss to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

It’s only natural to ask the question now: What did 37 of us miss?

The Kansas basketball team, which was ranked preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press poll with 37 first-place votes — mine included — did not live up to those lofty expectations. The Jayhawks finished 17th in the final AP poll, failed to win a Big 12 regular-season championship for the first time in 15 years and also bowed out to a hot Auburn team in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

So where was our original evaluation incorrect? The easiest — and most likely — answer is injuries and departures, which sent KU and coach Bill Self down a different path than anticipated.

Silvio De Sousa never played while sitting out an NCAA suspension. Udoka Azubuike sustained a season-ending wrist injury, which caused KU to change its offensive philosophy on the fly. Lagerald Vick left the team in early February and never returned, taking away the roster’s top outside shooting threat.

While all these absences hurt KU in obvious ways, it also made things more difficult when viewed through another prism.

Self, instead of relying on guys who’d played for him before, had to turn to ones without that same experience.

This is more important than one might think. Advanced stats expert Ken Pomeroy has studied the effect of “minutes continuity” in the past, finding that NCAA teams “with more continuity tend to perform better, with the effect being stronger on offense.”

It all makes sense when we think about it. The longer a player can be with a coach and system, the more comfortable he should be, which essentially should lead to better on-court production.

In this case, many of KU’s minutes were inherited by players in their first year playing for Self. Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson ended up being the most productive newcomers, while guys like Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and K.J. Lawson all showed some inconsistency at times, which perhaps should have been expected.

Not surprisingly, this ended up as one of Self’s least experienced teams in terms of minutes continuity (the percentage of a team’s minutes played by the same player from last year to this one). KU ranked 306th nationally in the stat, which was the Jayhawks’ third-lowest mark since Pomeroy began tracking the number in 2007-08.

Minutes continuity rankFinal KenPom rank

Pomeroy’s earlier findings seem to translate to KU as well. Though we’re talking small differences here — Self’s “down” years are ranking 17th in KenPom instead of top five — the Jayhawks, in general, have been more successful when the coach has been able to play more of his veterans in a given year.

KU’s minutes continuity rank vs. KenPom rank.png

One of KU’s biggest exceptions to the rule was 2013-14, as a team with the 337th-best continuity finished seventh in KenPom’s rankings. This still makes sense as a special case, as Self’s freshman recruiting class that year was ridiculously good — featuring Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden, to name a few.

The most promising part about this year’s scenario for KU — in most years — would be the potential of the future. The Jayhawks went through some growing pains, which hypothetically should set them up well for next year when guys will understand better what Self wants from them.

This might not play out perfectly for KU, though. With the expected departures of Dedric Lawson, Azubuike and Grimes to the pros and the recently announced transfer of Charlie Moore, Self once again could be mostly turning over a roster after doing the same last season.

KU still should improve in “continuity.” Using some back-of-the-napkin math, my estimation would put KU back to around 200th in the stat next year, assuming Dotson, Agbaji, McCormack, Marcus Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot all return and are healthy for 2019-20.

It’s still something to consider when ranking KU in the preseason. There was at least one example in the past — the transition between 2009 and 2010 — where KU’s inexperience one season benefited the team greatly the next year, with Self’s roster turning quickly from “rookie” to “veteran” and the team-quality numbers reflecting that improvement.

If this was a transition year for KU, it likely won’t have the same impact. The Jayhawks broke in quite a few new players, but they aren’t likely to get the benefit of many of them returning for next season.

There are no absolutes here, and exceptions can exist. But if trends play out as they have, Self turning about half his minutes over to new guys next year — though necessary — could limit what we should expect of the Jayhawks.

Adding new talent can be exciting and can also help to boost a program.

Returning a volume of experienced guys, though — both for Self and most of the rest of college basketball — appears to be a better recipe for immediate success.

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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.