New-Look Kansas Becoming Its Usual Dominant Force, Thriving Behind Early Changes

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 3, 2015

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Bill Self won 10 straight Big 12 titles one way.

Get an All-American big man to Lawrence. Throw the ball into the low post. Let the big dog eat.

When Self wins his 11th straight Big 12 title—and it's not if but when at this point—it'll be by means that even make him a little uneasy.

Back-to-the-basket basketball is out. Penetrate, pitch and drain threes is in.

"We're kind of a weird team," Self said after Monday night's 89-76 win over No. 15 Iowa State. "We have to score points on the block by driving it. We don't score it by throwing it inside and guys scoring it."


Self left one part out of that explanation.

The Jayhawks, now 19-3 and 8-1 in the Big 12, depend on making outside shots. They made 10 of 21 threes against the Cyclones and are now shooting 39.6 percent from deep on the season. They're even better in conference play, making 40.1 percent. 

Those are numbers that would make any coach happy, but there's an uncertainty that comes with relying on shots that far out. 

Coaches are creatures of habit. They love control. They love to be in control. And nothing has made Self feel more in charge of his own destiny than an offense that has for years generated easy shots close to the basket. 

KU has accomplished this year after year by playing through its big men. The Jayhawks create angles with great ball movement, their big men seal, and the guards feed the machine. 

Get easy shots. Make easy shots. And you produce these kinds of shooting numbers. 

KU's two-point accuracy under Bill Self
2-pt FG%Rank
2003-0452.027
2004-0552.729
2005-0650.869
2006-0752.832
2007-0855.46
2008-0952.630
2009-1052.719
2010-1156.81
2011-1252.522
2012-1352.915
2013-1455.47
2014-1545.9239
kenpom.com

That last number sticks out like a 7-footer in a room full of jockeys. 

And if you watched closely on Monday night, something that happened—or didn't happen—stuck out too. 

Not one time did Kansas score on a post-up. 

"We've kind of found a way to win some games different than we practice all the time and what we emphasize, and tonight was one of those nights," Self said. 

He's right. KU's offense was a disjointed mess in the opening minutes against Iowa State trying to play the typical KU way. Then Self went to a dribble-weave that allowed his guards to attack and that opened up shooters. 

The game turned when the Jayhawks made five of six threes during one stretch in the first half when Self unleashed his best bomber, Brannen Greene, off the bench.

Greene is shooting a ridiculous 75 percent from beyond the arc over his last five games. He started the bombing, and his teammates followed suit, but the one miss during that stretch gave a glimpse into the discomfort Self feels playing this way.

Feb 2, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self yells from the sidelines during the second half against the Iowa State Cyclones at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks won 89-76. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

When Perry Ellis took a wide-open transition three in rhythm and missed, Self had a look of disgust on the sideline. He put both hands up and swatted at the air, the universal "that's trash" signal.

Even though the percentages tell Self to embrace those shots, the green light isn't exactly flashing.

The Jayhawks rank 289th nationally in how often they attempt a three—29.4 percent of their field-goal attempts, per kenpom.com.

But if they didn't make them like they do, there's no chance they'd be where they are.

And it's this kind of team—one capable of shooting the lights out, like say a VCU squad that knocked off Kansas to advance to the Final Four in 2011—that can put a scare in those teams that rely on giants.


Mar 1, 2014; Stillwater, OK, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) is defended by Oklahoma State Cowboys forward/center Kamari Murphy (21) and guard Markel Brown (22) during the first half  at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA
USA TODAY Sports

This is not how things were supposed to be in Lawrence this season. This is never how Self would plan things. Joel Embiid was not supposed to be so good so early and leave for the NBA after his freshman year. Embiid, as he was for much of his freshman year, was supposed to be the guy KU could play through.

And Self has had a few.

Self's low-post lineage
PPG2pt FG%
Wayne Simien (04-05)17.854.8
Simien (05-06)20.356.3
Darrell Arthur (07-08)12.855.5
Cole Aldrich (08-09)14.959.8
Marcus Morris (09-10)12.859.3
Morris (10-11)17.262.0
Thomas Robinson (11-12)17.750.5
Jeff Withey (12-13)13.758.0
Joel Embid (13-14)11.263.9
Kansas Athletics

"There are so many things you take for granted when you have a special player like that," Self said. "And now we don't have that, and we kind of have to makeshift it a little bit." 

The alternative this season was supposed to be freshman Cliff Alexander, one of the top-rated big men in his class. Alexander came in with a man's body but with a raw back-to-the-basket game, and he hasn't shown enough in that area to give Self the faith that he's ready to be that guy.

Kansas is still led in scoring by a big man, Ellis, but his two-point accuracy (46.8 percent) doesn't look like the others, and how he gets his buckets is different too. Ellis is more comfortable facing up, and Self has had to get creative in finding ways to get him the ball in space where he can use his quickness to his advantage.

The blueprint hasn't exactly worked out as planned, and it's not just the bigs.

Take sophomore Wayne Selden, for instance. Selden is built like a linebacker, and you would think, just looking at him, that he'd thrive as a slasher. That's why he was expected to be this team's star. But Selden is most effective as a jump shooter. He makes a higher percentage of his threes (39.8) than his twos (32.7), and he's been streaky all year.

Monday night was one of the good ones for Selden, and he scored 15 of his 20 points outside the arc. 

Feb 2, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) shoots the ball as Iowa State Cyclones guard Bryce Dejean-Jones (13) defends during the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks won 89-76. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA
USA TODAY Sports

Those shots were open because the guys KU has who can slash—Mason, Ellis and freshman point guard Devonte Graham—were getting into the paint.

"We're not an execution team," Self said. "We are an energy team, and if you were to say 'Let's really go execute offense,' we could do it some, but we wouldn't do it consistently. 

"What we've got to do is just have guys pass it around, you can run bad offense and just have a guy beat your man, force help and pitch it. Even though that's good offense, that's not how we've always played."

It took a couple beatings and sloppy performances for Self to figure this out or, at least, to embrace a different style. The Kentucky blowout in November helped in its own strange way.

But it's not easy to sort of abandon what you've always done, and Self deserves credit for not trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. This is his best coaching job at Kansas, because he's never had to adapt like he is now.

The luxury he's had is time to figure it out. A year ago when Embiid hurt his back and was out for the NCAA tournament, the Jayhawks didn't have time to scrap what they knew and come up with something completely different. That led to an ugly loss in the round of 32 to Stanford.

This time around, Self has had a few months to figure out he has to win another way. He's not exactly Fred Hoiberg in his use of the three-point shot, but part of the reason the Jayhawks shoot so well from deep is because they're selective in the shots they do take. That part has not changed.

But what has changed is KU's best player is not a future No. 1 pick like Andrew Wiggins or a blessed big man like Embiid.

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 2:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives the lane against Jameel McKay #1 of the Iowa State Cyclones in the first half at Allen Field House on February 2, 2015 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Yet maybe the Jayhawks, giants in year's past, could play the role of spoiler. We know they can't beat Kentucky playing how they've always played. But the way to have a shot against dominant defenses like UK and Virginia is to get hot from distance, and Self has never had a team with as many guys who can shoot it like this one.

After Self finished his press conference on Monday night, he spent some time reflecting on how talented last year's team was. 

"That's the biggest difference, probably just raw talent," he said. 

But then as he looked across the room and saw Mason, his little bulldog point guard, getting interviewed on the television, he gave a window into what he's hoping come March. 

"This team can win more games than last year's team, if we're tougher and play with energy," Self said, focusing his eyes on the TV. "And that little guy right there has made a big difference."

And the three-ball, Coach. Don't forget about that.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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