University of Kansas

Four guards, or two bigs? Here’s the style Bill Self sees his team playing in 2019-20

A look back at the ups and downs of KU’s season

The KU basketball team started the season ranked No.1 in both the AP and coaches polls. By the time the season ended their hopes of winning a 15th consecutive Big 12 title vanished.
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The KU basketball team started the season ranked No.1 in both the AP and coaches polls. By the time the season ended their hopes of winning a 15th consecutive Big 12 title vanished.

Bill Self — for most of his career — has built offenses that thrive with two big men playing at the same time.

That hasn’t been the case as much recently. For the last three seasons, KU has mostly transitioned to a four-guard offense, with only a single big man roaming the lane.

It begs the question: With KU’s staff now comfortable playing both ways, which will be the preferred method for the 2019-20 team?

“If we have our full complement of players, no question, our best team will have two bigs out there the vast majority of the time,” Self told The Star last week. “But if we don’t have our full complement, then we’ve got to get our five best guys out there.”

Start with this: Self says it’s nice for any team to have a “secondary” way to play. That means even if KU is primarily a two-big team next year, Self wants to have a four-guard option available, just in case a certain matchup or situation calls for it.

Still, it’s somewhat difficult to determine at this point exactly what KU’s offensive style might be. There’s a simple reason for that.

“Recruiting’s not done yet,” Self said. “Maybe we can get somebody late who can be a versatile guy that can play both forward slots, the 3 or the 4.”

Adding another player of that type could give KU more options to potentially play small.

As it stands now, though, the Jayhawks will have to continue to see how their roster emerges over time.

One of the biggest questions surrounds Silvio De Sousa. The 6-foot-9 forward would likely project as a starter at the 4 position — pushing Self toward a two-big look with center Udoka Azubuike — if De Sousa wins an appeal to reduce his two-year NCAA suspension. That word is expected to come in the next week or so.

KU potentially could have another player fill that role in 6-foot-9 forward Precious Achiuwa. Rivals’ 17th-ranked prospect said Monday that he plans to pick his college choice this weekend, with KU still in the mix.

The Jayhawks also return frontcourt players David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot from last year’s roster.

After getting to play both styles in recent years, Self said he did like certain aspects of what a four-guard lineup brings.

“I don’t know that there’s a negative playing four around one,” Self said. “For me, if you can space the floor with four shooters and, for us personally, be able to isolate Doke, that’s a pretty good way to play. He was pretty good when we had that two years ago. But I do think that there’s still room in the game to pound it inside.”

Self only has to point to last season as proof of that final point. When Azubuike was healthy last year and playing alongside fellow big Dedric Lawson, KU was 9-0, with Self playing off Lawson’s passing ability to create openings for Azubuike inside.

Azubuike finished with 33 dunks in those nine contests — leading the team despite playing in only 25% of KU’s games.

“I’m hopeful if we have our full complement of players, we can still pound it inside,” Self said, “but the reality is, if you can’t pound it inside, you need to be able to stretch it.”

This is a change from how Self viewed the game even a few years ago. With the rise in college basketball of stretch 4s and 5s — big men who can shoot threes — it’s more difficult to play with two big men at once, as those forwards are having to defend out to the perimeter more often.

“We certainly can play two bigs, but if you can’t exploit people inside, I don’t think it helps you enough on the glass and I don’t think it helps you enough defensively — switching ball screens and stuff like that — if you can’t take advantage of them offensively,” Self said. “I think a lot of times, you’re better off playing four perimeter players around one if your two big guys, (if) one of them can’t score.”

Self points to recent examples of opponents who didn’t play two true bigs often. That includes Auburn, who mostly had 6-8 Chuma Okeke playing the 5, and Villanova, who played perimeter 4 man Eric Paschall; he attempted 201 three-pointers last season.

In many ways, the game is transitioning away from how Self preferred to play for a long period of time.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Jayhawks won’t go old-school two bigs in 2019-20 ... if the personnel lines up right.

“I actually think that it is hard to play two bigs (in today’s game),” Self said. “But if both bigs can score, like our team had going for it this year with Dedric and Doke, then I don’t think it’s hard.”

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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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