In the moments after Kansas’ 61-57 loss to No. 21 San Diego State on Sunday evening, Kansas coach Bill Self expressed concern that his young team wasn’t finishing better in close games. The Jayhawks have suffered three of their four losses in the final minute. And even in a loss at Florida, Kansas was just a few possessions from being in the game in the final moments.
“I can live with missing shots,” Self said. “I’ve got problems that we can’t close, or that we can’t make the play when we have to make the play.”
In all, Kansas is 1-4 this season in games decided by six points or less (or in overtime). We were curious to see how that compared to past Kansas teams, so we looked up Self’s record in such games* during his time at KU.
*We’ll pause to note that the final score is not always a great indicator to whether a game was truly close. Free throws can distort the final margin, of course, and under these parameters, KU doesn’t get credit for its victory over Duke in the Champions Classic, which it ended up winning by 11 points. If you saw that game, you know KU had to make some plays down the stretch to win. But if we’re looking at 10 years of data, it’s a pretty fair way to see how KU has performed in close games under Self.
As you might expect, a 1-4 record is nearly unprecedented. In his first 10 seasons at KU, Self was 56-30 in games decided by six points or less (or in overtime). The last seven years, his teams have been even better, winning 75 percent (45-15) of those games.
It’s also probably no coincidence that the last two KU teams to have losing records in such games were the last two KU teams to be dominated by underclassmen. The 2008-09 team (the Morris twins and Tyshawn Taylor were freshmen) was 2-4 in those close games, while the 2005-06 team (Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright) was 2-6.
The Jayhawks have some shooting and rebounding issues that need to be addressed. But Self is rightly concerned that he has another young team that is struggling to win close games.
Here’s the year-by-year data:
2. How much does Kansas depend on Perry Ellis?
After Kansas suffered three losses in four games in late November and early December, it was easy to spot one trend. In all three losses, sophomore forward Perry Ellis was mostly quiet on offense. In Kansas’ victories, he was much more productive. That trend continued on Sunday, when Ellis was just one for eight for four points against San Diego State’s long and active front line.
Here are Ellis’ updated numbers in victories and losses:
In KU’s four losses: 7.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 44 FG percentage
In KU’s nine wins: 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 60 FG percentage
There are a couple of ways to interpret this. For one, Ellis is the Jayhawks’ second-best scorer, and most teams won’t play as well when their second-leading scorer has an off night. But this highlights two other issues:
Kansas’ depth has not been the strength that we thought it would be. (Senior transfer Tarik Black has provided little on offense, and freshman Wayne Selden is still trying to play to his potential.)
Ellis still has a tendency to struggle against bigger, stronger frontcourts. As ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla pointed out on Twitter last night, Kansas’ four losses have come against “tough, veteran teams.” And with the exception of Colorado, all had considerable length in the frontcourt.
3. How bad was KU’s offense against San Diego State?
From a shooting perspective, the Jayhawks had one of their worst offensive nights of the last 25 years — especially at Allen Fieldhouse. KU shot just 29.8 percent (17 of 57), the worst percentage at home since the stat became official during the 1988-89 season.
But from an efficiency standpoint, it wasn’t even KU’s worst offensive performance of the season. The Jayhawks scored 0.88 points per possession, according to KenPom.com. And they were actually worse against Villanova, when they scored 0.83 points per possession and shot 21 for 54 from the field (two of 11 from three) and 15 of 25 from the free-throw line. Against San Diego State, KU made a couple more three-pointers and shot 19 of 28 from the foul line. The Jayhawks also had six fewer turnovers. So while the overall shooting numbers were atrocious, it could have been (and has been) worse.