The charm of this Kansas basketball team is obvious. They can beat you with something more subtle too, but let’s start with the charm. After all, charm is fun, especially with this team.
Basketball at Kansas means different expectations, and different talents, but even at a historic powerhouse this is without precedent — a national player of the year, and a top-10 draft pick, who are not the same person.
The last college team to produce a consensus player of the year and a top-10 pick who were not the same person was Kentucky’s 38-2 national championship team in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
There’s more, of course. Devonté Graham is good enough that he’s coming off 26 points in the Sweet 16 and last year outplayed the national player of the year on the road. Lagerald Vick just did a 360 dunk in a close NCAA Tournament game.
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So, yes. This Kansas team that takes on Oregon for a spot in the Final Four on Saturday is plenty talented.
“We’ve had some pretty confident teams, without question, over the years,” KU coach Bill Self said. “This is certainly one of the most confident teams.”
But this team also feels a little like a guy driving a little too fast on roads that are a little too slick, because no matter what, they’re a foul or two away from Dwight Coleby or Carlton Bragg guarding the other team’s best big man which always means Self is about to lose his mind.
They have stories that fans have fallen in love with, like Frank Mason’s path from an academic non-qualifier to projected program depth to national player of the year. They have styles that fans have fallen in love with, too, like Josh Jackson’s lottery pick and all-court talent married with a mid-major senior’s work rate.
And they’ve had victories pulled straight from a cheesy movie montage, from Mason’s buzzer winner against Duke to coming back from 14 down with less than 3 minutes to go against West Virginia.
They play for each other in a way that can be rare in college basketball, perhaps best illustrated in two ways. First, in Graham recognizing the jump that Mason made from last season and being OK as a sort of support mechanism.
Second, and in a bigger picture way, a proud and experienced group that won 33 games last year recognizing Jackson’s talent and finding ways to help him flourish. It doesn’t always work like that.
But, charm only matters so much.
Or, rather: It only matters if you’re winning.
There are many reasons KU is now 31-4. Most of them have been talked about plenty, from the individual talents to an overwhelming offensive performance so far in this tournament — an average of 96 points per game on 55 percent shooting.
But it’s been easy to miss that this team has evolved from Self’s worst defensive team at Kansas to an acceptable one to now something closer to pretty good.
You can see this in subtleties, like Landen Lucas hedging ball screen after ball screen, or Jackson using his quickness to go under bigger post players to defend entry passes. You can see this in the beginning of highlights, too, because it was a steal that led to Vick’s spinning dunk the other night.
But you can also see this in points given up per possession. Using the 19 games against the best 50 teams in the country according to KenPom.com, KU’s best six games are since the start of February. Two of the five games all season they’ve held a top-50 opponent to one point or less per possession have been in this tournament.
There are a few possible explanations for this. KU has greatly improved defending ball screens, which was a major weakness early in the season. Some of that is in switching more, and some of it is in simple individual improvement — in-season development.
Also, KU’s lack of depth meant conserving energy in both games and practice. That strategy means the Jayhawks aren’t as worn down as they otherwise would be, and now with just two games per week (with longer commercial breaks) are letting it fly. They still lack the rim protector that Self would prefer, but athleticism and effort matter, too.
“I think we’re getting up to coach’s level,” Mason said.
In Oregon, Kansas has an interesting opponent on both of these levels.
The Ducks are terrifically athletic, particularly 6-foot-7 forward Jordan Bell — one of the few college players who can match physical gifts with Jackson.
Dillon Brooks was selected as second-team All-America by the NABC, and Tyler Dorsey has hit 19 of 30 three-pointers over the last five games. Oregon is also one of the better offensive teams in the country — 17th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
But one thing the win over Purdue made clear is that while other teams are bad matchups for Kansas, the Jayhawks are usually a worse matchup for the other side, in part because they are subtly improving on defense and quite obviously flourishing on offense.
Also, they’re really dang fun to watch. That’s important, too, in its own way.
Elite Eight: Kansas vs. Oregon, Saturday at Sprint Center, 7:49 p.m. (TBS)