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Kansas’s Defense Is (Mostly) Fine

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NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled over Kansas’s defense, which currently ranks 37th nationally and 8th in the Big 12. Kansas is allowing an adjusted 96.2 points per 100 possessions and 1.073 points per possession in Big 12 play, neither of which is great. KU’s previous worst defense was the 2014 team, which ranked 22nd, although having a generational talent injured for much of the year will hamper that a bit. This also will be just the 3rd time since 2006 Kansas finishes outside the top 10 defensively, barring a miraculous run. Yet I still think the defense is (mostly) fine. Why?

For starters, the 2-point defense is trending back upwards. Opponents are shooting just 47 percent on twos in Big 12 play, which ranks 2nd in the league, and 44 percent on the season. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the best offenses they played this season were mostly neutralized on 2-pointers. Indiana shot 16 percent under its season average, Duke shot a hair under its season average, Kentucky shot 3 percent under its season average, Baylor shot 8 percent under its season average, etc. The gap isn’t huge on most of those, but it is somewhat telling that opponents aren’t just going off inside the arc against Kansas. Why is 2-point percentage so important? Well, because defenses have a lot more control over whether teams make twos than they do over whether teams make threes. According to KenPom, 3-point shooting is 83 percent in control of the offense, which makes sense given that it is farther away from the basket and thus less under the control of the defense. Basically once a three leaves someone’s hand, it’s pretty much over from a defensive point of view, which is how James Blackmon can hit multiple step back threes late in a game, or Deonte Burton can go 7-9 despite being a 20% shooter.

In any event, Kansas ranks 7th the league in 3-point percentage allowed at 38.2 percent. They don’t allow opponents to attempt many, so the hope is once that 3-point shooting number comes down a bit, the Jayhawks will see their defensive numbers come down as well. It is also worth pointing out teams shoot 75 percent at the free throw line against them, which is 9th in the league. Clearly they need to shore up that free throw defense.

Things obviously aren’t perfect. They aren’t great off the ball, and according to Synergy they are in the bottom 15 percent in the country in spot up defense. With a group that is as flexible on the perimeter as they are and a group that should be able to reasonably switch basically everywhere, that shouldn’t happen. They have also had games where teams are able to extend possessions pretty much interminably against them due to offensive rebounding. A good way to combat that is by forcing more turnovers, but that isn’t really Bill Self’s forte. Kansas sits just 7th in the league, forcing turnovers on 17.5 percent of possessions.

We will explore the turnover issue at a later date, but for now just know Kansas is doing quite well at the thing it can most control, and appears to be the victim of some 3-point luck.

Speaking of 3s, tune in next week for why we might be a bit too confident in the Kansas offense.