There was a lot to be disappointed with following Kansas' 62-61 loss at West Virginia. The loss itself was not altogether unexpected, but the way it happened was particularly frustrating. Leading the list of frustrations was the Jayhawks' abysmal performance on the defensive boards, allowing West Virginia to rebound more than half their own misses, only the third game in which this has happened in Bill Self's tenure at Kansas. Much was made afterward of the fact that one of the team's top rebounders, Cliff Alexander, rode the bench for all but six minutes, which turned some new focus on the team's potential deficiency on the defensive glass. But is there truly a problem?
Last week, I went over some recent trends in KU's play. Much of the data I found was inconclusive, but it did appear that defensive rebounding may be emerging as an area where the team is starting to struggle. I've updated the same chart I used for that article to include the last two games, a good rebounding effort against Baylor, and the rough performance against West Virginia. Here's how that chart looks now.
To recap, those points represent each of the Big 12 games we've played, in order. They demonstrate how much better or worse our defensive rebounding was compared to the opponent's season average. Points below the 0.0% line are games in which we allowed a higher offensive rebounding % than average, and vice versa.
While this chart makes it clear that there's been a decline in our defensive rebounding, I'm not comfortable using it to prove anything in particular for several reasons. First, six of our 13 games fall below the zero line, but the other seven come in above. It's hard to say we struggle with defensive rebounding when we've held teams to below their season oReb% in more than half of our conference games. There's also the issue of consistency. Although the overall trend of the chart points down, we've still been above that zero line in three of our last six games. At the end of the day, this chart doesn't do much other than point out a very broad trajectory.
Right now, our overall defensive rebounding % for the season sits at 68.3%. This number, as well as my general feeling from watching this year's team, lead me to think that this year's squad isn't quite as proficient on the defensive glass as past Bill Self teams. I went through each of his 12 years at Kansas to see if that's truly the case.
While this isn't the lowest mark of the Self era, it's definitely the worst compared to the rest of D1. It's remarkable how consistent this team has been on the glass since the Title year in '08 (with the following season being an outlier). This year's 68.3% mark is tied for KU's lowest since 2006, and when factoring in national rank, it's arguably the worst defensive rebounding team in since Bill Self arrived in Lawrence.
So, what's the problem, and can it be fixed? The most obvious reason for these low numbers is the absence of any dominant rebounding presence in the post. Between Joel Embiid, Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins, Kansas hasn't found the roster lacking in great rebounders in some time. I took the offensive rebounding % and defensive rebounding % of each of the team's nine significant contributors to see just where everyone stands.
The thick lines represent the mark required to be in the top 30 in the Big 12 in each category. Players in the top right corner rank in the top 30 on both the offensive and defensive glass. The bottom left represents players who are good on the offensive glass, but lacking on the defensive end, while the top left is the opposite. The bottom left is where you'd expect your smaller guards to be.
If there's a problem, this chart probably tells you where it lies. Cole Aldrich, Joel Embiid, Thomas Robinson and Markieff Morris wouldn't fit on this chart, because each had a dreb% higher than 25% in the final year at Kansas. There's no problem on the offensive glass - this team is one of the best in the country in this area. The issue seems to lie in our lack of a dominant defensive rebounder.
Compounding the problem is that you'll notice the two most impressive points on the chart are Landen Lucas and Cliff Alexander. For one reason or another, these two are the third and fourth big men on the team in %min, meaning Self has preferred Ellis and Traylor to both. Now, Ellis is too valuable offensively to sit for the sake of rebounding, and his presence in the top right of the chart would suggest that, although he's not a great rebounder, he's not really hurting the team.
I don't want to turn this into a "why isn't Cliff playing more?" post, but when you rank 223rd in something, you may want to consider more playing time for the guy who's second best on the team at it. Honestly though, Cliff Alexander's playing time isn't the most frustrating takeaway for me here. Sure, I think he should be playing more, but it wouldn't be nearly as big an issue if Wayne Selden and Jamari Traylor were pulling their weight on the glass. Why is our big, supposedly-physical, 6'5 wing the worst rebounder on the team? Why is Jamari Traylor, our starting center for much of the year, grabbing just 11.8% of the available defensive rebounds?
Unfortunately, Selden and Traylor are who they are. They aren't going to suddenly start grabbing every rebound in sight in late February. That said, it does appear that those two are a big part of where the problem lies. Though I've not been high on Landen Lucas this year, it does appear that he's coming around, and he and Alexander probably need to continue to steal more minutes from Jamari Traylor. I also wouldn't mind seeing Brannen Greene take more minutes from Selden (depending on the game situation).
After getting slaughtered on the boards by West Virginia on Monday, it will be interesting to see how Bill Self handles this. Will he roll with the same lineup, but put additional emphasis on pounding the glass? Will we continue to see Landen Lucas for longer stretches? Will Jamari's minutes decline, or does Self feel his defense is more meaningful than his ineffectiveness on the boards? One way or another, I'm sure he'll try to address it. For now, I just have to hope we don't run into any great rebounding teams in the tournament, because it doesn't appear that this is ever going to be a strength of this team.