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Bill Self Was Right

The numbers indicate that Bill Self made the correct decision to leave Udoka Azubuike on the floor late in the OU game.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 20 Baylor at Kansas Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We are eschewing the regular semi-statistical recap because although I normally would not care what the mob of KU fans say after a game, enough people whose opinions I actually respect have disagreed with Bill Self that I thought it was worth digging into. (Although first I am obligated to state that regardless of what you think about leaving Azubuike in, it ranks far below allowing Oklahoma to shoot 56 percent on twos, taking Azubuike out for a huge stretch of the first half, and Devonte Graham going 4-19 from the field in terms of why Kansas lost.)

Unfortunately, a lack of plus minus data makes it tough to do a full investigation without a little guesswork, but we will do our best.

First, we discuss the short term decision (i.e. was leaving Azubuike in the best idea for winning the game last night). Azubuike came into the game shooting roughly 40 percent from the line, which translates to .8 points per possession. 10 possessions happened from when Oklahoma began fouling, with Kansas sitting at 78 points. If you’ve been following along, you know this means Kansas would be good for 8 more points, putting them at 86. Oklahoma scored 9 points over those final 10 possessions (technically 11, but one was dribbling it out at the end of the game) putting them at 85 for the game.

Of course, it’s not that simple. First, Kansas was in the bonus rather than the double bonus when the Sooners began fouling, and of course that limits the sample size, really punishes guys for missing the first free throw, etc. Certainly it would be understandable to take Azubuike out at that time and then put him back in with the team in the double bonus.

This also overlooks the fact that if you run this scenario over and over, there are times when Azubuike makes 3 of his first 4 free throws, in which case Oklahoma has given itself essentially no chance to win. And this analysis also overlooks the fact that there are two ends of the floor. It’s impossible to do the math on this without reliable plus minus data, but given how badly Kansas has performed this year without Azubuike on the floor, and how easily Oklahoma was able to score inside without him on the floor, it’s much easier to see the Sooners making up 2 points over 10 possessions with him off the floor than with him on it.

On that same tack, just by Azubuike making roughly his season average, you can also get to a point where you are ahead by multiple possessions with less than a minute left. Then you can take Azubuike off the floor because the clock would force Oklahoma to foul, and at that point all that matters is whether you make the free throws. The other end of the floor is rendered somewhat irrelevant.

There’s also analysis of how the free throw game gets KU more rest, limits Oklahoma’s transition game, which is among the best in the country, and other strategies Kansas could have utilized while keeping Azubuike on the floor (e.g. parking him in the corner) which all tilts the scale in favor of leaving him on the floor. But it would also stretch this post another 10,000 words or so. As played, it obviously didn’t work out for the Jayhawks, but I am comfortable saying that was in the bottom 5 percent of results assuming you could play that scenario over and over again.

Then, there is the long term implications of Bill Self taking Azubuike out, which really is the more important thing. I’m not big into player psychology stuff, but I can imagine having your coach believe in your ability helps more than being taken out in a close game. Who knows what ripple effects that has to the rest of his game. But more importantly, Udoka Azubuike is at worst KU’s second-best player. Given how they play with him off the floor, I don’t think it is a stretch to say he’s their most important player. Signaling to opposing coaches that all they need to do to get Kansas’s most important player off the floor is to foul him a couple of times doesn’t exactly scream great strategy.

Of course, if Silvio de Sousa emerges and Mitch Lightfoot continues to improve, Kansas could find a compromise: keep Azubuike on the floor when he has 2 fouls in the first half, and use KU’s back up bigs and excellent free throw shooters to close the game out.