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Kansas Jayhawks Basketball: What’s Wrong with KU’s Defense?

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NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to do a fully comprehensive video post over four games unless you write about college basketball full time for a living, so I am afraid I can only pull snippets of plays. Also I have to admit this had to be kept to a collection of mostly unrelated thoughts lest I go off on a tangent each time I try to discuss a cause of the KU defense not looking great and whether it is as bad as we actually think.

It’s no secret Kansas hasn’t been great defensively through the first four games of conference play (and for a lot of time before that). I’m writing this before every Big 12 team has played four conference games, so the numbers will probably change a bit, but Kansas is currently allowing 1.06 points per trip in conference play, which ranks 6th in the league.

We will get the brief good news out of the way early: Kansas is 4th in the league at allowing free throws, and teams are shooting 78 percent at the line, which is last in the league. As the year rolls on, I expect teams will be allowed to get away with a bit more contact, and I expect the free throw percentage will regress a bit. That should help a little bit. Also, last season Kansas began the Big 12 season by allowing a point per possession or higher in 7 of its first 8 games, and then again against Kentucky. They ended it by allowing a point per possession or higher just once in the postseason (against Austin Peay, when they basically stopped trying in the second half).

The problems come down to basically two things: post defense, and pick and roll coverage.

Some brief thoughts on each before we dive deep: I think some of the post defense issues have been not having Landen Lucas fully healthy. That obviously doesn’t explain what has been going on the last two games, but he and everyone else needs to adjust to what he can do now that he’s healthy. I also think Dwight Coleby should be playing more. He isn’t a go-to offensive guy, but he was one of Mississippi’s best rim protectors and rebounders, and would basically be Landen Lucas lite, which would be useful for 10-15 minutes per game.

As for the pick and roll defense, some of it is Landen hasn’t been getting out and hedging as much this year (health?) and some of it is Kansas is helping too aggressively off shooters. This has been a problem for awhile, but in 2017 basically every team has only a couple guys you can help off.

Alright, video time.

First, a blast from the past. Kansas State did fairly well at pick and roll stuff early in last year’s Big 12 tournament quarterfinal matchup against Kansas, but the Jayhawks adjusted and then defended it fairly well for the rest of the game. Here, Frank Mason does a good job helping in the middle and not allowing the K State big man to catch in rhythm, which forces a bad pass and a steal:

Contrast that with some from Tuesday. This first one isn’t all bad: Mitch Lightfoot and Frank Mason do a good job of funneling the ball handler to the sideline, and Graham cuts off the passing lane to the corner. But Landen Lucas doesn’t rotate over to help on Dean Wade, which could have been an easy dump off for two points, and Josh Jackson is sort of doing nothing, which leads to an open 3 attempt:

One hope for improvement I have is refs are going to start letting a few more things go and start calling things more consistently down low. For example, Dean Wade plows into Mitch Lightfoot here, extends his arm.....and it’s a foul on Lightfoot.

Here’s some good and bad from the Oklahoma game. Note Lucas and Mason escorting the ballhandler to the baseline, while Graham cuts off the drive and kick possibility. However, Svi runs away from the guy he should be rotating to and gives up what should have been an easy putback:

This can be titled “Devonte Graham is back .mov.” After some early confusion up top by Vick, and a nice recovery by Lucas, Vick and Lucas double the ball handler after the screen, and Graham does a good job to duck in and force the steal.

Here’s another possession which shows how good Kansas can be on defense. So many good rotations, some good on ball defense from Svi. You could say that it shows you need to be on and focused the whole time because Mason helps off for a second and gives up a semi open three, but it’s also a 35 percent 3-point shooter, one of the guys you can reasonably help off, and Mason does a good job of getting back to him:

I will conclude by saying this: I think Kansas’s biggest problem defensively is allowing teams to get too many shots at the rim. Hoop-math.com has the Jayhawks allowing 37.4 percent of opponents’ shots at the rim, which is a less-than-stellar 246th in the country. Fortunately, Kansas is 23rd in FG% allowed at the rim, or else it could be much worse. The Jayhawks also allow teams to shoot just 47.6 percent on twos, which is 3rd in the league. Again, I think teams will be allowed to get away with more down low as the season rolls on, which will lower that percentage even more.

I’d also like to draw your attention to one more thing: As Kansas has improved its pick and roll coverage in terms of on the ball, the rotations on the backside have become worse and worse. This allows far too many easy offensive rebounds and putbacks, such as the clip where Svi runs the wrong way. This is just anecdotal evidence, but Kansas seemed to handle that better and better as the year went along last year, and I think it will happen again, which should cut down on the easy baskets.

Lastly, I think there’s one more thing we have to consider: Kansas likely has had some lapses in effort/concentration (eg Mason being late on that closeout) simply because they haven’t been burned by it and/or haven’t needed to be dialed in yet. Consider: Kansas is a properly called shot clock violation away from being undefeated. At the end of the day, these are still mostly kids, and when kids realize they can virtually name their score, I don’t really blame them for not going balls to the wall every possession on defense. Once the NCAA tournament hits and each possession means more, I think you’ll see the Jayhawks buckle down on defense. That alone won’t make them the best defense in the country by any means, but I think it will be a noticeable difference.