“Basketball can be summed up very easily: If you’re good, you get easy baskets.” — Bill Self
This is Bill Self talking about basketball. These particular words came in the middle of October. Self sat at a table at Big 12 media day in Kansas City. Somebody asked him about his offensive philosophy, why he takes so much pride in pounding the ball inside and scoring at the rim. Self paused for a moment, like the question had been set up on tee. Then he answered.
Self talks about basketball a lot, of course. When you are a future Hall of Fame coach with two Final Fours and 10 Big 12 titles on your resume, people are always asking you to reveal little parts of the machine, to explain this adjustment or that philosophy, to break down this deficiency or that strength.
For the past 10 seasons, the Kansas Jayhawks have won the Big 12 regular season championship, and if you ask Self to explain the Streak, you’ll probably hear him describe the last decade with one word: Toughness.
In some ways, it’s a pretty vague way to describe the relentless winning that has taken place in Lawrence over the last 10 seasons. Toughness? What does that mean anyway. In another way, it makes perfect sense. If you are a tough team, Self believes, you will find a way to score easy baskets. If you are a tough team, you will find a way to stop other teams from scoring those easy baskets against you.
This is the way Self has coached for more than a decade in Lawrence. It’s also the reason why this Kansas basketball season has been so fascinating, this season so intriguing. The coach that thrives on easy baskets has a basketball team that is not particularly good at scoring them. The Jayhawks are shooting just 45.9 percent from inside the three-point line, which ranks 239th in the country and is the worst mark under Self by a substantial amount. (The previous low from two-point range was 50.8 in 2005-06.)
So for most of November and December, the question hung over the Kansas program. Could Bill Self adjust? Could the Jayhawks win an 11th straight Big 12 title without a consistent low-post scoring threat? Could Kansas be Kansas — without the easy baskets?
“We’re kind of a weird team,” Self says. “We have to score points on the block by driving it. We don’t score it by throwing it inside and guys scoring it.”
By now, you know most of this story. No. 8 Kansas is 19-3 overall and 8-1 in the Big 12 after an 89-76 victory over Iowa State on Monday night. The Jayhawks have a 1 ½-game lead in the Big 12 race, barreling toward another Big 12 title, and the conventional wisdom would be to assume that Self has found a way to adapt and evolve; that the Jayhawks have remade themselves as the machine rolls on, moving toward another high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Here’s the thing: It’s only partially true. The Jayhawks are not pounding the ball inside as they have in the past. They are not scoring at the rim and overwhelming opponents with size and strength. But in other ways, Kansas isn’t too far away from its template of success — a template created by some of Self’s best teams at Kansas.
Yes, the Jayhawks are more reliant on three-pointers for scoring than they have been in eight years. But stylistically, they’re still shooting about the same number of threes — percentagewise — that they have for most of Self’s tenure. In fact, even after making 10 of 21 from three-point range on Monday night, they’re only hoisting slightly more threes — again, percentagewise — than they did last season.
After 22 games, the Jayhawks have taken 29.4 percent of their shots from behind the three-point line. That ranks 289th in the country and is essentially the same as last season (28.6 percent). (In conference play, the number has increased only marginally, to 29.9 percent.)
The difference, to this point: Kansas is making 39.6 percent of its threes, and as a result, the Jayhawks are getting more than 27 percent of their scoring from behind the arc. Last year, just 20.5 percent of its scoring came from the outside.
Here’s a look at Kansas’ three-point shooting numbers over the last eight seasons:
% points off 3s***
** Percentage of Kansas’ field-goal attempts from behind the three-point line
*** Percentage of Kansas’ points off three-pointers
A couple of quick takeaways:
▪ 1. In the last eight seasons, four Kansas teams actually took a greater percentage of shots from three-point range than this current team.
▪ 2. Self, of course, has made some adjustments during conference play. The Jayhawks are playing through their guards more, letting Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham create offense off the dribble and in Kansas’ three-man weave offense on the perimeter. The Kansas staff also has made a concerted effort to get forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor opportunities to drive from the perimeter. And perhaps most importantly, sophomore Brannen Greene has become a more permanent part of the rotation, making 62.5 percent (15 of 24) from three-point range.
The Jayhawks are making shots from three, and playing through their guards and wings, covering up for their lack of inside game. But to this point, the Jayhawks haven’t exactly started bombing away from deep. But then again, if they keep making threes at a 40-percent clip, maybe they should.
“We kind of found a way to win some games where we’ve kind of done it differently than the way we practice all the time, and what we emphasize,” Self said on Monday. “And tonight was one of those nights. If we don’t make some shots, who knows if we’d have been in the position we were in late.”
The moment of the game
OK. This isn’t from Monday’s game. But it is Andrew Wiggins catching an alley-oop in transition from Ricky Rubio.
The player of the game
Brannen Greene continued his torrid stretch of outside shooting, hitting two of three from three-point range. So let’s update Greene’s run at the KU single-season record for three-point percentage. Greene needs a minimum of 60 attempts to qualify — he should get there in the next game or two — and he surged ahead of Kirk Hinrich’s record (50.5 percent) on Monday.
The stat of the game
Frank Mason was in double-figures for the 19th straight game, finishing with 12 points and eight assists.