NCAA Tournament

Now more than ever, Jayhawks are defined by defense

Sam Mellinger
Sam Mellinger

He and his teammates play some of the fiercest, most unrelenting, leave-you-annoyed-and-bruised brand of defense in the country. Tyshawn Taylor thinks he knows why.

This is what has come to define Taylor and the Kansas basketball team, of course. They are here, a win over North Carolina away from the Final Four, because they muscle and work and move their feet and generally play defense as hard as any group of college kids you’ll see.

When Bill Self talks about his team being “who we are,” this is what he’s talking about: a toughness borne in both who he recruits and how he coaches them, and a prideful willingness to (metaphorically, anyway) choke an opponent when needed.

This hasn’t always been the Jayhawks’ style, you probably know. A lot of times they’ve been as interested in answering buckets from the other team as stopping them.

Taylor has a theory.

“We might try a little bit harder defensively,” he says. “(in the past) we just had so many weapons that could score from so many different spots, that if we weren’t all the way in tune defensively, we could cover that up by making some shots.

“We knew at the beginning of the year with this team that it wouldn’t be same.”

The Jayhawks may not realize it, but they are something of a test case against a time-honored trend in the NCAA Tournament. They are playing ugly offense and dominating defense in an event that’s been mostly controlled by scorers.

Defense wins championships? Not in college basketball, usually.

Kansas is trying to change that.

Of the 36 Final Four teams since 2003, only 14 have ranked higher in defensive efficiency than offense. Seven of the last nine national champions have been better on offense than defense, and the two exceptions are UConn last year (16th in offense and 14th in defense) and KU in 2008 (second and first).

Only two champs ranked lower than fourth offensively, but four have been out of the top 10 on defense.

So in this context, Kansas being able to win its last two NCAA Tournament games while shooting a combined 36 percent is even more remarkable. Right now, KU is

19th in offense and fourth in defense.

College basketball teams just don’t win championships playing the way Kansas is playing. Not usually, anyway.

This is something like a boxer entering a beauty contest. The Jayhawks are much better offensively than they’ve played recently — Taylor is supremely gifted and been bummy two games in a row — but maybe this is an identity they can take to New Orleans.

Or, at least, it’s the one they’ve clung to. Some of the numbers might blow you away. Nobody has shot better than 40 percent against KU in six games. Nobody but Missouri has shot better than 42.6 percent since Jan. 28.

Detroit scored seven points over a 22-minute stretch. Purdue — even with all those three-pointers — scored its fewest points since January. North Carolina State scored 23 points over 22 minutes.

“Seemed like we were always trying to make tough shots,” North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said.

You can see how this happens. Taylor and Elijah Johnson are two long, athletic and prideful guards. Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey — who just broke Cole Aldrich’s school record for blocks in a season — give a suffocating presence inside. Travis Releford and Kevin Young bring versatility and the valuable commodity of knowing exactly what their role is.

This isn’t the best defense Self has coached at KU. Every team he’s had since 2006 has ranked in the top 10, and you can almost see him blush a little bit when he talks about that group of piranhas from 2008.

But this might be the team that most defines itself by defense — good and bad.

“If you look at some of the worst games that we played this year,” Self says, “were games where we made shots early.”

In other words, the Jayhawks’ problems defensively have come when they haven’t had to concentrate as much. That shouldn’t be a problem against North Carolina,

one of the most gifted teams

in college basketball.

And that’s not the only part of this that plays in KU’s favor.

Kendall Marshall is one of the most irreplaceable players in college basketball, and the North Carolina point guard will either wear a suit and tie to today’s game or try to play with one arm and a screw in his wrist six days after surgery.

The Tar Heels looked lost without him against Ohio — Carolina coach Roy Williams compares it to the Colts going from the playoffs to 2-14 without Peyton Manning — and it’s hard to imagine them fixing all their problems less than 48 hours later.

But more to the point here, Kansas and its defensive thirst are the worst kind of opponent for Carolina at the most important time.

At their best, the Tar Heels are a beauty to watch. Even without Marshall, there are four first-round NBA picks in the starting lineup, all of them long, all of them athletic, all of them capable of points in bunches.

It’s just that Carolina hasn’t been close to its best against tough defenses. The Tar Heels average 81.7 points overall and 76.9 in conference games, shooting 46 and 44 percent. Against top 20 defenses, those numbers drop to 66 points and 39 percent shooting.

The Tar Heels are 4-3 in those games.

So in this way, KU’s attempt to go against the recent NCAA Tournament trend has found the right opponent — a real possibility of being on the happy side of a Williams team not being tough enough in March.

Not that it would hurt to mix in a few made jump shots once in a while.