LAWRENCE — In Bill Self’s mind, a stifling man-to-man defense should act like a unhittable fastball, the kind of simple pitch that can blow hitters away with late life and velocity.
Some teams may mix in a little bit of zone, basketball’s equivalent of an offspeed pitch. But if you’re doing it right, Self says, and you can bring pure heat, it shouldn’t matter who you’re facing.
“The hardest defense to score against is man‑to-man if you know what you're doing,” Self said.
So even in the season’s opening weeks, as Kansas’ normally vaunted defense has not been quite Selfian in its results and numbers, Self hasn’t reconsidered his defensive philosophy. Even as an emphasis on new foul rules has forced teams across the country to play zone defense at a higher rate.
A study conducted this week by the Wall Street Journal found that college teams are playing zone on 21.6 percent of possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That’s up from 15.6 percent last year — and higher than the four-year average of 17.6 percent. Ranked teams have seen even more zone, facing the defense on 23.8 percent of possessions.
But as No. 6 Kansas (6-1) prepares to travel to Colorado on Saturday, Self would prefer to remain a power pitcher.
“This is just me, it's a marathon and not a sprint,” Self said. “So why would I bail the guys out now to play a (certain) way to win a game when I know that's not how we have to win games when it counts the most.
“That would be like saying, ‘OK, against this team because they have really crappy ball handlers, we're just going to press this one team, and then we're not going to press any other teams,’ but we're going to do that to try to win this one game or make it look good.”
Despite Self’s reservations, the numbers suggest that Kansas’ defense has been a little less stifling than usual. One year after leading the country in field-goal percentage defense at 36.1 percent, the Jayhawks rank 90th in the country in two-point percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot 46 percent on two-point attempts. They rank seventh in the Big 12 at defending three, allowing teams to shoot 34.1 percent from the outside.
But while Self says he sprinkles a little zone into each practice — and he used the hybrid triangle-and-two defense during Kansas’ run to the NCAA title game in 2012 — this is a coach that appears married to the tenets of a hard-nosed man-to-man.
“We ain't going zone,” Self said. “That's the mindset I want the kids to have.”
Self concedes that some coaches, such as Syracuse zone master Jim Boeheim, may disagree with his view. But for now, Self will continue to bring the heat, hoping his young team can play the kind of man-to-man defense he’s grown accustomed to coaching.
“We've been here 10 years,” Self said, “and I think we've finished in the top 10 in field goal percentage defense in America nine of the 10. And then the crappy year we had we were 12th. So it works. It works for us. But it hasn't worked for this particular team yet.”
Outside shooting woes — Kansas’ three-point shooting continued to trend downward during a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas last week. The Jayhawks shot 22.7 percent (10 of 44) from three-point range in three games, finishing 2-1 in the three-day event. One reason: Kansas’ best three shooters, freshmen Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene and sophomore Andrew White III, haven’t been able to crack the top eight of KU’s playing rotation.
Self doesn’t anticipate any rotation shakeups, but he hopes one of those players can step up and provide an outside spark off the bench.
“There's no question that Frank (Mason) and Wayne (Selden) and Andrew (Wiggins) and probably Naadir (Tharpe) need to play a good portion of the minutes,” Self said. “That's best for our team, no question. But one of those other (three) need to step up, and we probably need to figure out who that one is.”
For the season, Kansas is shooting 30.7 percent from three-point range, which ranks ninth among Big 12 teams.
“We’re good,” said Wiggins, who is shooting 33 percent. “We’re struggling right now. We’re not where we want to be at. But I’d say in the next couple games, in the next couple months, we’ll pull it together.”
Big 12 surging — The Big 12 conference featured four teams ranked in the latest AP 25 poll.
The rankings include No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 17 Iowa State, which has started a perfect 5-0, and No. 20 Baylor.
“Iowa State to me is the surprise team of the league,” Self said. “They've been real good, and Oklahoma State is obviously terrific and loaded, and Baylor is off to a good start without question.
“If you're going to look at the surprise league around the country, you may make a case it has been the Big 12, and I'm pleasantly surprised.”