On the surface — and in the box score — last season’s Kansas Jayhawks were perhaps the strangest team of Bill Self’s long tenure.
Built on freshman stars, the Jayhawks were among the most efficient offensive teams in the country, even if the process wasn’t always smooth. But while the offense scored easily, the Jayhawks’ defense was often mediocre — at least by Self’s high standards. For the first time in nine years, Kansas ranked outside the nation’s top 11 in defensive efficiency, coming in at a still respectable 31st.
Even if Self couldn’t recite what the advanced numbers said about his defense, he certainly understood what the problems were. The Jayhawks needed to be sounder defensively. They needed to procure more steals. They had to play with a different mind-set — more toughness and aggressiveness. In the weeks leading up to the season, Self preached defense as much as he ever had — which is to say, about the same as always.
But he emphasized key themes. He wanted his players to pressure up the floor. He wanted his bigger guards to stalk passing lanes and run through more passes. Without a 7-foot shot-blocker on the floor, the KU guards would be forced to apply more heat.
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“We don’t play with our hands nearly enough, as far as being active and getting deflections and steals,” Self said. “It’s something that we’ve emphasized more this year than we ever have.”
To this point, the results have been encouraging. Six games into the season, the 11th-ranked Jayhawks rank 16th in defensive efficiency, holding teams to 0.89 points per possession. Last Sunday, they captured the Orlando Classic title after holding Michigan State to 24-percent shooting in the second half. But one alarming trend has continued.
The Jayhawks still aren’t forcing turnovers.
After six games, Self’s defense is among the nation’s worst at forcing teams into mistakes. The Jayhawks have forced just 59 turnovers ,and their turnover percentage — the number of turnovers forced per possession — ranks 333rd in the nation. Another alarming number: Sophomore forward Landen Lucas has as many steals (five) as sophomore guard Wayne Selden.
“We’ve done a bad job of it,” Self said. “We’re kind of long, but we’re not as active defensively as what I thought we would be. We’re not quick in that regard.”
Earlier this week, as No. 11 Kansas prepared to face Florida, 3-3, in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge at 8 p.m. Friday at Allen Fieldhouse, Self conceded that his backcourt of big and athletic wings have been less active on defense than he expected.
“It’s a little bit less as far as us creating havoc than what I thought we would be,” Self said. “We’re better defensively than we were a year ago at the same juncture, but we certainly didn’t create a lot of havoc last year.”
Now comes a rematch of Kansas’ 67-61 loss to Florida last year in Gainesville, Fla. The Gators, a veteran-laden squad that advanced to the Final Four, used a 1-3-1 zone to dismantle the Jayhawks in the first half, and a young team never recovered.
“They got the best of us the last time we played down there,” forward Jamari Traylor said.
This year, Florida will enter Allen Fieldhouse having lost three of five. But earlier this week, sensing a lack of urgency at practice, Self pulled out clips from last year’s loss.
“I just wanted to remind them how good Florida was,” Self said, “and how good they can be, and certainly how good defensively they were last year.”
For Kansas, it’s another opportunity to rack up a resume-building nonconference victory. More than two weeks after a humiliating loss to No. 1 Kentucky at the Champions Classic, the Jayhawks have won four straight and enter a three-game stretch that also features a road game at Georgetown and a matchup with No. 25 Utah at the Sprint Center on Dec. 13.
But to sustain the current level of play, Kansas could need to force the issue on defense.
“Maybe we could do some more things to try to trap, to try to create some more havoc or some more turnovers,” Self said. “But for the most part, I think it’s just what the skill set of our players (is), which isn’t bad at all. It’s a good skill set, but we don’t have great anticipators defensively like some people do.”