LAWRENCE — So Bill Self was watching some basketball the other day — Georgetown versus Notre Dame — and his ears perked up for a second as the announcers began to talk about Georgetown’s offense.
Wait, what are they saying?
The announcers, it seems, couldn’t stop praising Georgetown’s version of the Princeton offense. They were hard to guard, efficient, fundamental.
“And they score (63) points,” Self says. “Then, you talk about us, about how lame our offense is, and we score (the same).”
For Self, there was a point in this little story, an appeal to those that have wondered what’s happened to Kansas’ offense in the last six games. The Jayhawks have scored fewer than 70 points in five of their last six, averaging 68.2 points per game in Big 12 play. But as Self wants to point out, this doesn’t give a true indicator of how KU, 17-1 and 5-0 in the Big 12, has performed offensively while taking an early lead in the conference race.
“Everything is so distorted when you look at it statistically,” Self says.
In this case, Self is talking about pace of play. In KU’s victory over K-State at Bramlage Coliseum on Tuesday night, the Jayhawks scored just 59 points while pulling out a four-point win that was more stinging bee than floating butterfly. It was slow, physical, ugly — and it featured just 60 field-goal attempts. Thus, if you account for tempo, the Jayhawks’ offense was nearly as efficient as it was in their 74-66 victory at Ohio State on Dec. 22 — their other road victory against a ranked team.
According to advanced efficiency numbers at KenPom.com, the Jayhawks scored 1.03 points per possession against Ohio State, while managing 0.98 points per possession at K-State.
“You can have great offense and score less points,” Self says, “because of the length of the possessions and the way the game goes.”
Aside from Iowa State, which bombed away from the outside, Big 12 opponents have used a pretty standard strategy against Kansas: Control the clock, use long possessions, don’t turn it over. And when Kansas returns to the floor against Oklahoma at 3 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, it’s likely that the Sooners will employ a similar game plan.
For some perspective, Kansas’ offensive efficiency numbers still rank in the top 20 nationally. The Jayhawks are averaging 1.13 points per possession for the season, while the mark has dropped to 1.01 in conference play, fourth-best in the Big 12.
“It’s tough in conference play,” senior guard Travis Releford says, “because you’re going up against teams that you play every year. They know all your play calls, they know your offensive tendencies and it’s gonna be tough to score.”
Self said Thursday that he’d like to plug freshman guard Ben McLemore — KU’s leading scorer — into the offense more. But it’s not as simple as throwing him the ball more. McLemore is a player that needs space, and he’s still totally comfortable creating his own shot.
“Ben could be more aggressive driving the ball,” Self said, “but we’re splitting hairs here. He’s doing fine. I mean, gosh, he’s doing fine. And I’d like for him to average 25 a game, but that’s not who he is.”
So it may not be a surprise that Self believes KU’s offensive struggles can be fixed on the defensive end. In Self’s view, the Jayhawks aren’t constructed to be great finishers in the half-court. They don’t have a natural low-post scoring option, nor do they have a guard that can create offense on his own at the end of the shot clock.
Senior Elijah Johnson and sophomore Naadir Tharpe are improving in this area, but Self believes the Jayhawks need to create more buckets off turnovers and in transition.
“I think that what happens with us, is we are very opportunistic in transition, but we need to be able to run off our defense,” Self said. “In the K-State game the other day, we were terrific on the defensive glass. But Jeff doesn’t block a shot, which blocked shots usually lead to transition for us. And we don’t turn them over.”
If his team could create three extra buckets off turnovers, Self says, the offense doesn’t quite look as sluggish.
“Then you look like a team that’s flying around,” Self says.
Self’s thought process appears to be bleeding over into his team. The message is continually hammered home: Enjoy the ugly victories. But even after 16 straight wins and a 5-0 start in the Big 12 — a start that looks even better when contrasted with the recent rash of upsets around the country — KU players believe they can emerge from their offensive rut.
“I still really don’t feel like we’ve been playing great offensively as a team,” Tharpe says. “We haven’t really made a lot of shots. … But that’s not where you win games at. You win games on the defensive end.”