How an important ‘20 percent’ is killing KU defensively

By Jesse Newell

Before we talk about the Kansas basketball defense, let’s start with a game.

Kansas coach Bill Self has always talked about defensive field-goal percentage being his favorite stat, and for good reason. Statistician Dean Oliver has found that it’s the most important of basketball’s four factors, while determining roughly 40 percent of a team’s success on that end.

So, through three Big 12 games, where would you guess that KU ranks in terms of limiting opponents’ made shots?

The Jayhawks, so far, are first in effective field-goal percentage defense — a stat that takes into account that threes are worth more than twos.

And that’s great for the Jayhawks. They are succeeding in the most important part of defense, thriving in a way so many Self teams have in the past.

Now, knowing that, where do you think KU ranks in terms of points per possession allowed?

The Jayhawks are … 10th. Last. Couldn’t be worse.

KU is allowing 1.18 points per possession, while not even coming particularly close to TCU’s 1.15 mark.

So what’s going on here? How could KU be so good yet so bad, all at the same time?

Blame the other 60 percent — or, to be specific, the 20 percent that is haunting KU.

Forcing turnovers (25 percent weight) has been difficult for KU lately with a short rotation, though if we’re being honest, Self has won just fine with passive defensive teams before. The Jayhawks also have done a decent job of limiting opponents’ free-throw attempts (15 percent weight), so that isn’t the cause either.

That leaves one area: rebounding (20 percent). And yes, this is where KU is leaking points — so much so that it seems impossible for the current level of non-production to continue.

Big 12 opponents have rebounded 45 percent of their missed shots against KU through three games. That doesn’t mean much without context, so consider this:

▪ The second-worst Big 12 team (Baylor) is allowing opponents to get 35 percent of its misses; that’s 10 percentage points better than KU.

▪ Self’s worst defensive rebounding team ever at KU allowed 34 percent offensive rebounds.

▪ No NCAA team since 2001-02 — out of more than 6,000 — has completed a full season while allowing opponents to grab 44 percent of their missed shots.

I’m cherry-picking obviously, as three games does not a season make. The point still remains, though: In three contests, while rebounding at a level like no team ever has sustained, KU has managed to start 2-1 in the Big 12.

That’s a decent accomplishment if you think about it.

There are no obvious fixes for KU, at least with the roster as it stands now. Self admits he didn’t recruit Svi Mykhailiuk or Lagerald Vick for their rebounding prowess, though they now must focus on that area with the Jayhawks playing four guards.

“I’ve always been a believer of this: You’re going to play a game, and if they get 70 possessions, how do we get 80? It’s not that complicated,” Self said. “And right now, we’re the team that’s getting 70, and our opponent’s getting 80.”

This is new territory for Self. Playing small is the only way to go, giving his team distinct advantages offensively while sacrificing important areas on defense he’s never had to abandon.

For now, that includes the all-important 20 percent.

And if you want to be positive, there’s almost no way it can get worse from here.


Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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