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Here are five things I think about the Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team following a 2-1 showing at the ESPN Events Invitational in Kissimmee, Florida, last week.
1. KU’s final play against Dayton didn’t work but will soon
I had to dig into the archives, but I found an example of what was supposed to happen in KU’s final offensive set against Dayton.
Here you can see Udoka Azubuike get an easy basket on the same play a couple years ago against Texas Tech, then what went wrong last week when David McCormack turned it over on a charge.
OK, last comment on this. I found that last Dayton play on file ... KU has changed its name a couple times. Here's what it looked like when Doke got an easy basket. Play usually starts with PG handoff, which could be why Remy was confused. He needed to be in bottom corner though. pic.twitter.com/El9xTxGOI5
— Jesse Newell (@jessenewell) November 30, 2021
I went in-depth on Bill Self’s play call in my analysis after the game, but the two clips next to each other show that guard Remy Martin should have been in the bottom corner. By cutting late, though, he not only brought unnecessary defensive attention to McCormack but also eliminated his most accessible pass available once he got it into the post — an option McCormack used in this game-opening set against Kentucky last year.
On Tuesday, Self said on his radio show “HawkTalk” that his team would have gotten a layup there if the Jayhawks executed it correctly. 247Sports’ Kevin Flaherty’s research also found, via Synergy Sports Technology, that KU had averaged a healthy 1.61 points per possession last year and 1.5 this season on this exact setup when throwing to McCormack.
Former KU guard Keith Langford — a longtime professional player overseas — later chimed in with his thoughts on the play.
Great observation.. the way I saw it, Remy has to read the quick slip on the PnR and be out by the time CB has the ball. Coach is right, easy layup if it’s executed. DM is too dependent on the seal and not comfortable enough making skill plays w/the ball. Jan/Feb that’s 2 points pic.twitter.com/xGbl6W3Zpu
— Keith (@keith_langford) December 1, 2021
His final verdict is a takeaway I agree with: This is a play that will work for KU in a few months when everyone understands their assignments.
2. There’s one big reason to be optimistic about these Jayhawks
This year, KU football coach Lance Leipold repeated a line often, saying his team had little margin for error.
He was right. The Jayhawks aren’t at a level with development, strength or talent where they could make up for too many mistakes.
KU basketball, to me, is on the exact opposite end of that spectrum for one reason: It can often make scoring look easy.
That primarily has shown up in transition, where KU has made one of the nation’s most drastic improvements since last season.
% of possessions in transition
Self loves getting easy baskets, and this has been KU’s most effective path to those this season. The Jayhawks are so much quicker following Self’s offseason roster additions, and he even admitted Wednesday that he believed his team was scoring in transition “better than we have in years.”
I commented about this over the weekend, but KU reminds me a bit of coach Roy Williams’ last two Jayhawks teams. With those squads, opponents could play KU even for a long time, but it seemed like — at some point — the Jayhawks would reel off a 16-2 or so run over three minutes to take control of an otherwise back-and-forth contest.
KU has that potential again this year as well, which makes it plenty dangerous. And as this graph from JGTrends on Twitter shows, it’s a style of play the Jayhawks have entirely revamped from the 2020-21 campaign.
How much have the top teams adjusted their transition usage between last year and this year? How is @UCLAMBB new pace going to pan out? And anybody surprised by @AlabamaMBB? pic.twitter.com/TQEInAgz1b
— JG Trends (@jgtrends) November 28, 2021
3. Miami didn’t do KU any favors against Dayton
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, as the old saying goes ... well, Self and staff have reason to blush after watching Miami play.
Last year, I did a deep dive into a Self staple play that was the favorite of college basketball analysts Jordan Sperber and Gibson Pyper.
Miami either read it or had word spread some other way quickly. Because in the team’s game against Dayton on Thursday, I saw the Hurricanes run this Self-crafted play four times.
With baseball pitching, there’s something called a third-time-through-the-order penalty. In essence, the more familiar a batter is with seeing an opponent’s pitches, the more likely he is to succeed in later at-bats.
It feels a bit like the basketball version of this played out against KU, as Miami gave Dayton four looks at KU’s fastball before the Jayhawks threw it against the Flyers the next day.
Here’s just one example. Without as much familiarity Thursday, notice how three Dayton players stick with the ball handler to allow a wide-open Miami three.
KU ran the set early for an open Ochai Agbaji three Friday, but on a crucial possession late, notice how Dayton’s players seem much more comfortable with the actions coming next.
It’s worth noting Agbaji didn’t get a bad shot on this possession — taking advantage of the fact that the defense was respecting his outside shot to drive a closeout. But I can’t help but think that KU might’ve gotten an easier try had the element of surprise been more on its side.
4. Christian Braun has taken a significant step
College basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s studies have shown that college basketball players generally exhibit improved statistical performance as they get older, and KU guard Christian Braun is proving to be one of the team’s best examples of that this season.
Braun, who was KU’s only player named to the invitational’s All-Tournament Team, was especially impressive inside, where he made 16 of 26 two-pointers.
Let’s take a step back to appreciate just how far he’s come. Here’s a look at Braun’s two-point comparison — against Division I competition — from last season to this one.
Games played vs. D-I
Synergy’s logs show that much of Braun’s transformation has come from transition, where he’s had more chances while attacking the rim instead of shooting as many threes.
There are other positive signs as well, though, including that Braun has improved his scoring chances on offensive rebounds while also matching last year’s season total in field goals on “cuts.”
It’s a long way of saying this: Braun’s offseason work shouldn’t go unnoticed, as he’s quickly turned himself into one of KU’s most invaluable offensive pieces.
5. There’s reason to be hopeful about KU defensively
The following chart shows the glass-half-empty view of KU’s defense; the Jayhawks are allowing too many shots at the rim.
KU defense's percentage of shots allowed at the rim per season, via Hoop-Math:
— Jesse Newell (@jessenewell) November 30, 2021
There are some other underlying trends, however, that indicate KU’s defense might not be as far off as many think.
Sperber, for instance, has previously found that a marker of elite man-to-man defenses is their ability to force opponent isolation situations.
KU has been excellent with this so far, as 10.5% of opponents’ possessions have ended in iso — the fourth-best defensive mark nationally and second-best tally of any major-conference team.
Another reason for hope: KU’s defense forces an average defensive possession time of 18.2 seconds, which is 48th-longest nationally.
Pomeroy has previously found that “In general, longer possessions make for better defense.”
KU, in short, is showing some attributes of elite defenses. Now it’s about closing out possessions, which seems like a more straightforward fix than what some other issues might be.