This was another variation on a theme. This was another battle between statistical models and math and numbers — and the core philosophies that make Bill Self the best basketball coach in the Big 12. This was Tuesday night at Texas Tech, and in some ways, it was the story of this KU basketball season.
If you have followed Kansas, you probably know that this is the worst inside scoring team that Self has ever coached. You might also know that Kansas has been the best three-point shooting team — in percentage, at least — in the Big 12 Conference. For Self, these two facts can lead to an identity crisis of sorts.
“I don’t feel real comfortable with how things have gone lately,” Self said in the moments after No. 8 Kansas’ 73-51 victory over Texas Tech.
In some ways, debating how a team scores its points in the minutes after another conference victory might induce some shoulder shrugging. But in most cases, perhaps, the Jayhawks would adjust to their strengths, shoot a few more three-pointers and save the efficient low-post offense for a season in which another lottery-pick forward shows up.
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If you have watched Kansas, you might know this hasn’t quite been the case. On Tuesday night, the eighth-ranked Jayhawks took care of Texas Tech by shooting 72.7 percent in the second half. In the big picture, Kansas improved to 20-4 overall and 9-2 in the Big 12 Conference. The Jayhawks shook off Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma State. They scored another precious road victory in their quest for an 11th straight Big 12 title.
But for another night, it was Kansas’ method of scoring that was the most interesting story line. The Jayhawks made 11 of 20 from three-point range (55 percent). They shot 15 of 29 (52 percent) from inside the arc. So for the second straight game, the Jayhawks actually shot a better percentage from three.
And to Self, these numbers really don’t matter.
“Fool’s gold,” Self said. “You can’t bank on making 55 percent or 50 percent of your threes.”
For another night, though, the Jayhawks struggled to finish at the basket. In the opening half, as Kansas pieced together a 27-22 lead, the Jayhawks hit just five of 14 from inside the three-point line.
It was a familiar image: They missed shots at the rim. The offense stagnated against Texas Tech’s inside traps and zone defense. KU finished the first half with eight turnovers.
During the same first half, Kansas also hit five of 13 from the three-point line. Here, then, is Self’s problem: He would prefer to employ an offense that plays inside-out, an attack that finds easy baskets at the rim. On Tuesday, the Jayhawks’ winning formula was basically this: Drill threes on offense and play suffocating defense on the other end.
“We like to play inside-out,” said sophomore guard Wayne Selden, who hit four of seven from three-point range and finished with a team-high 16 points. “That’s how we play.”
In basketball terms, of course, this is not an either/or scenario. It’s not simply a question of whether Kansas needs to ditch its inside-driven offense and chuck up more threes. Self likes to say that he wants to open up shooters by throwing the ball inside — to get more open looks by emphasizing ball reversal and movement.
But when a team shoots like this — Kansas made its first six threes in the second half — it’s easy to wonder if the Jayhawks should be bombing away even more.
“If you play a team that takes away the threes and forces you to score inside, you can’t do it,” Self said. “You’ll end up going home sad. And basically, that’s what happened Saturday (in a loss at Oklahoma State). We had no low-post game.”
For the season, Kansas is shooting three-pointers just less than 30 percent of the time. Historically, Self’s teams have always shot close to 30 percent of their shots from long distance. In other words: This KU team continues to hit a high percentage from deep, but the Jayhawks aren’t shooting any more threes than usual.
On Tuesday, Selden continued his hot shooting. Sophomore Brannen Greene, who is now shooting better than 62 percent from three in Big 12 play, splashed in two of three from long range. And point guard Frank Mason was perfect on two tries from three.
“If we’re open,” Selden said, “Coach wants us to
But not too often. On Tuesday, KU shot three-pointers on 41 percent of its shot attempts. To Self, that was too much. The Jayhawks have an identity, he says, and they need to get back to it.
“You guys may not agree, but when you rely on making shots, that can easily go the other way,” Self said. “We’ve got to rely on making people play poorly and rebounding, defending, ball movement, and things like that. And I think we’re kind of average at those things. I think we’re kind of relying on making shots right now.”