LAWRENCE — It was late on Monday night, nearly 45 minutes after Kansas’ 93-83 victory over Toledo, and Bill Self appeared to be speaking a different language.
He was saying things like: You never piggyback a weak-side screen. You have to stay connected on out-of-bounds plays. You have to learn to help the helper’s helper.
The words were coded, and technical, and slightly complex, but if you watched the Jayhawks’ performance against Toledo, it didn’t take Bobby Knight or Phil Jackson to understand why Self was doing a little venting after a victory.
For another night, the Jayhawks’ defense was decidedly average — maybe even porous by Self’s usual standards.
“I’d say I’m a little frustrated,” Self said,” “because we’re not getting it on that end at all.”
KU had allowed Toledo to shoot 46.4 percent inside Allen Fieldhouse while turning the ball over just eight times. Kansas managed just four steals, and Self openly guessed that it had probably been since the 1990s since a KU defense had recorded that combination of defensive numbers.
“A team comes into our building and makes 32 field goals, that’s a lot,” Self said. “We’ve had some teams struggle to make five field goals in a half at times.”
The number also aligned with some season-long trends. While No. 16 Kansas is still playing rather solid defense, the numbers still concern Self, who has built his program’s streak of nine straight Big 12 titles on the back of stifling and suffocating defenses.
For the moment, Kansas ranks 23rd nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Here’s a little historical perspective on the defensive issues. While KU is still among the 25th most efficient defensive teams in the country, this Jayhawks team is on pace to be Self’s second-worst defensive team since he arrived at Kansas. Only the 2004-05 Kansas team, which was ranked 25th in the country, has been worse.
This is the standard that Self has set. From 2005-06 through last season, the Jayhawks finished outside of the top 10 in defensive efficiency just one time — and that was when they finished 11th in 2010-11.
This year, KU is allowing opponents to shoot 41 percent from the floor. And while part of the increase can be attributed to the new foul rules that encourage more scoring, Self still believes his young team needs to improve in a bunch of areas as it prepares to face No. 21 San Diego State on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m frustrated because we don’t give up 70 (points) in our building very often, let alone 83,” Self said. “And the thing that’s frustrating to me, the way the game’s being called this year, obviously there’s more points because it becomes a foul fest. (But) they made 10 points from the line and we gave up 83.”
One major issue: KU is forcing just 11 turnovers per game, well below the national average. Historically, KU teams have never forced a lot of turnovers. For years, the bread and butter has been a menacing half-court defense and owning the glass. Still, Self believes his long and rangy guards can wreak more havoc defensively in the half-court.
“Coach (Self) always talks about everybody being on the same rope,” KU junior guard Naadir Tharpe said. “Just being able to help each other. Once we get better at that, it’s going to be able to shrink the floor for us.”
Self likes to say that his team needs to learn to “help the helper’s helper,” a confusing way of saying that they need to play better team defense. Some of that, Self believes, will come with time.
“I think experience has a lot to do with it,” he said. “So you learn to take shortcuts. And there’s some things you can teach, and some things you kind of have to have a feel for.”
For years, Self has told the same story about former Kansas guard Mario Chalmers, who was not a particularly strong on-ball defender. Instead, Chalmers had a knack for sneaking into passing lanes and getting steals while other teammates did the dirty work. At the moment, KU doesn’t have anybody with those sort of instincts. But if the Jayhawks want to grow into a national title contender, this is one area where they must improve.
“What good ‘steals teams’ do is they show the offensive team a pass and then they take it away,” Self said. “Just like defensive backs. The guy looks open, but he’s really not open. And that’s what good defensive teams do.”