The presence of Andrew Wiggins in Lawrence has Bill Self dreaming up defenses that are mostly foreign to the Kansas coach.
Self told Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News that "this is without question the most athletic team we've had" and obviously the addition of Wiggins this summer helped that statement roll right off the tongue.
Wiggins is genetically blessed with the best set of quick-twitch muscles I've ever witnessed live—and I say this after watching one summer scrimmage. He has a chance to be a devastating defender. Self also has another freak athlete on the wing in Wayne Selden.
So Self's imagination is running wild on how to best utilize the speed, length and quickness he's assembled. He told DeCourcy:
I think we've got to defensively do things to pressure more because for the first time in years we can actually pressure the ball. We've got wings that can run through passes. I think we'll have to do more stuff fullcourt.
And then also, we haven't played any zone, but I think we can have an unbelievable zone team. I'm not saying we’ll do that a lot. I definitely want to investigate it.
Self talking zone caught my attention. I've watched every possession of his tenure at Kansas. The Jayhawks have played zone a handful of possessions during that time. In the last few years, the only reason Self has wandered from man-to-man was to play a triangle-and-two.
Don't blame him, either. No one should criticize Self's hesitancy to play anything but man. The argument can be made that he's the best defensive coach in the country.
The Jayhawks are the only team in the country that have ranked in the top 10 for eight straight years in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency—the best measuring stick college basketball has for defensive strength. In comparison to some of the other top defensive minds in the game, Rick Pitino and John Calipari have both put five of their last eight teams in the top 10; Mike Krzyzewski has had four teams in the top 10; and Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim have had one apiece.
The reason for KU's amazing consistency has been a reliance on forcing tough shots. Self's teams always rank high in field-goal percentage defense, but his teams rarely force a lot of turnovers.
This team, on paper, is capable of both, and that's why Self is thinking of pressing more and actually considering a zone.
When he says he wants to "investigate it," there are two programs he should be studying: Louisville and Syracuse. Pitino presses and then falls back into a zone similar to Syracuse, something Kansas could duplicate with its depth. And if Self is serious about studying the zone, obviously he's going to watch tape of Syracuse.
Boeheim's defense, similar to Self's, usually keeps shooting percentages low. What Boeheim has been able to do the last few years is force a lot more turnovers, and the length and quickness he can put at the top of the zone and on the wings has a lot to do with that.
Self has recruited a Boeheim-like roster that can mimic a force-turnovers-while-keeping-percentages-low approach. Kansas has nine players who figure to be in the rotation who are taller than 6'5", including 7-footer Joel Embiid, 6'9" Memphis-transfer Tarik Black, 6'8" Perry Ellis and 6'10" Landan Lucas inside. Self has three wings who are 6'6"-plus: Wiggins (6'8"), Brannen Greene (6'7") and Andrew White III (6'6")—and Selden is 6'5".
A roster with size is not one that would figure to be an ideal up-tempo team, but that's hardly the case with the squad Self has assembled or Boeheim's teams at Syracuse. They both like to get up and down.
Syracuse runs with the type of opportunities the zone creates—steals on the wings and deflections from the top. The Jayhawks didn't need to force turnover to run last year because of Jeff Withey. Withey generated a lot of fast breaks with his ability to block shots directly to teammates like the first pass in a fast break.
KU's best defense—funneling everything in Withey's direction—turned into its best offense with two excellent transition wings in Ben McLemore and Travis Releford.
The strength of this D—similar to a Syracuse defense—will be its length and athleticism. It's also within reason to believe the strength of the offense will once again be in the open court.
The weakness, like last year, could be at point guard. Elijah Johnson never really settled into that role and his shakiness with the ball cost Kansas dearly in the Sweet 16 against Michigan. The Jayhawks were actually at their best offensively when Naadir Tharpe, the expected starter in 2013-14, was in facilitator mode.
Tharpe's ability to set up teammates could make Kansas a better offensive team, but there is cause for concern at that position more so because of Tharpe's defense. Tharpe struggles to keep quicker ball-handlers in front of him and his lack of size at 5'11" could create a problem against some of the bigger lead guards in the Big 12 like Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart or Iowa State's DeAndre Kane. Playing zone could allow Self to hide Tharpe.
It's ridiculous to predict that Self will abandon man-to-man. That will still be KU's staple. But with this roster, it makes sense to mix it up more than he has in the past.
Self likely has one year to experiment with an athlete like Wiggins. That's why his imagination is working overtime in July.