Kansas stormed back to defeat West Virginia in one of the most entertaining games of the season Monday night, and it did so playing how it has all year: small. Smaller, in fact, than the Jayhawks ever have in the Bill Self era.Several teams around the country are downsizing by choice. Plodding, back-to-the-basket power forwards are on the verge of extinction. A bigger wing there with some defensive versatility immediately becomes harder to guard.
Villanova cut down the nets playing an extremely modern style last year; a stretch-four who attempts seven 3s a game, Kris Jenkins, sunk the buzzer-beating game-winner. North Carolina, that Jenkins miss away from the 2016 title, plays big, dominating foes on the offensive glass.
On a scale of Villanova to North Carolina, Kansas has been about as close to the latter as you can get during Self’s tenure. When you recruit like the Jayhawks do, you can prioritize size and find outside shooting. Kansas has used two traditional bigs for years, yet it still generally has length on the wings. The formula has worked wonders. The Jayhawks are aiming for their 13th straight Big 12 championship.
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The Jayhawks have turned to small-ball this season by necessity. Freshman center Udoka Azubuike, who showed promise early, is out for the year with a wrist injury. Carlton Bragg, who was supposed to fill the Perry Ellis void, has been ineffective. Landen Lucas has been solid, but he’s just one guy. The Jayhawks’ other big men are mostly untested. So Self did what any great coach does. He adapts.
That means Josh Jackson, Kansas’ 6-foot-8 uber-athletic freshman, becomes a pseudo power forward.
Outside of his explosiveness, Jackson’s top attribute is his court vision. He could wind up being a point forward at the next level. The situation in Lawrence, though, calls for the opposite. The Jayhawks need Jackson to play bigger and rebound. He has collected 10 or more rebounds in five of his last six games, excelling in exploiting mismatches against bigger foes.
Jackson showcased his versatility against Kentucky's Derek Willis a few weeks ago. Willis is a stretchy power forward in his own right, but he isn’t in Jackson’s athletic stratosphere. Against a spread-out offense, Kentucky had no answer for Jackson’s straight-line drives. Jackson put up 20 and 10 against the Wildcats.
Coaches are getting smarter about hiding their weakest defender on Kansas’ other starting forward, Svi Mykhailiuk. But he’s no offensive slouch either.
Again, all of this is new for Kansas. During the Self era, these are the primary frontcourts he’s trotted out, almost all of them traditional in size and style of play:
|2015-16||Landen Lucas||Perry Ellis|
|2014-15||Jamari Traylor||Perry Ellis|
|2013-14||Joel Embiid||Perry Ellis|
|2012-13||Jeff Withey||Kevin Young|
|2011-12||Jeff Withey||Thomas Robinson|
|2010-11||Markieff Morris||Marcus Morris|
|2009-10||Cole Aldrich||Marcus Morris|
|2008-09||Cole Aldrich||Marcus Morris|
|2007-08||Darnell Jackson||Darrell Arthur|
|2006-07||Darrell Arthur||Julian Wright|
|2005-06||Sasha Kaun||Julian Wright|
|2004-05||Wayne Simien||Christian Moody|
|2003-04||David Padgett||Wayne Simien|
The results this season are about what you’d expect. Kansas is making 41.3 percent of its 3s, best in the Self era. Nearly 32 percent of the Jayhawks’ points come from behind the arc. A Self-coached team has never topped 30 percent in that category. This isn’t Kansas’ best offensive team, but it’s in the conversation. The Jayhawks rank sixth in the country in adjusted offense, their best since 2010-11.
This all makes sense. Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Jackson are dynamic creators and scorers, Mykhailiuk spaces the court and Lucas does the dirty work. Defenses have a ton of real estate to cover against the Jayhawks.
Still, it’s not all roses for Kansas. The Jayhawks are alarmingly thin – Lagerald Vick is the only perimeter reserve that sees time – and if Lucas gets into foul trouble they don’t have an interior force. Bragg didn't score and had five fouls in 18 minutes Monday night. Mitch Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby haven’t produced much in their limited burn.
There’s the defense, the worst unit Self has overseen during his Kansas stint. The Jayhawks rank 31st in adjusted defensive efficiency – KU has never finished worse than 22nd under Self. It's finished in the top 10 a whopping nine times.
Playing small can boost an offense, sure, but it can harm a defense. Jackson has been working the boards but the Jayhawks are getting owned there. Kansas ranks 209th in defensive rebounding percentage. The lack of depth isn’t helping, either.
On most nights, Graham, Mason and Jackson are so good that the Jayhawks can overcome their deficiencies. But that may not be sustainable over six games in the NCAA tournament. It still feels as if Kansas is one productive big man from being able to excel in multiple environments.
As they showed Monday against a really good West Virginia team, the Jayhawks have made things work so far with what they have. Self has about a month to figure out if that will be good enough in March.