LAWRENCE — Here is a scene from Tuesday night: It is the second half at Texas Tech, and Kansas is on the ropes. Texas Tech guard Robert Turner has just slashed into the lane, and the ball goes in the basket again. On the sideline, Bill Self looks toward the bench and mutters to anyone who will listen: “We can’t guard anybody.”
Here is a scene from Thursday afternoon: It is two days before No. 8 Kansas will face No. 19 Texas in Lawrence — another Big 12 title in sight — and Self stands inside Allen Fieldhouse, talking about his team.
“We’re not as bad defensively as what I play it up to be,” Self says.
The scenes come two days — and two cities — apart, but here it is, the most obvious illustration at the season-long battle facing Self and his young team. A veteran coach who prides himself on hardscrabble toughness and suffocating defense seems to have a team that is incapable of being elite in either category.
It’s been frustrating, Self says. But at this point in time, he’d rather deflect the blame away from his players. He doesn’t want to dwell too much on the negative.
If the Jayhawks beat Texas on Saturday, they will effectively lock up a 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. It won’t be official, of course, but KU can take a three-game lead with four games to play. Yes, it will be over.
But as March approaches, the defensive questions still linger. Why do opponents keep shooting better than 40 percent against KU? Why are the stops such a challenge? By now, the numbers suggest this is the worst defensive team of the 11-year Self era at Kansas.
“In order for us to be a great team, we’ve got to get better defensively,” Self says. “That’s the biggest area of improvement that we can make in my mind, and so much of it is a mindset.”
Self is speaking of intangible qualities like toughness, focus and consistency. For years, Kansas has ranked among the best defenses in the country because Self has demanded it. His teams just didn’t guard you — they wore you down with length and athleticism, heat and pressure. But how can you measure toughness?
“When you look at our pieces, our pieces aren’t quite the same as what they’ve been in the past,” Self says. “Our personalities aren’t quite the same.”
Looking back, Self says, he probably overestimated his team’s defensive potential. Last season, Kansas finished No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, riding a tough group of veterans to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Jayhawks rank just 67th nationally in field-goal percentage, allowing opponents to shoot 41.2 percent.
The advanced defensive numbers tell a similar story. For the last seven years, Kansas has ranked in the top 11 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Self’s defenses were so good, for so long, it almost seemed like a birthright. If Self is the coach, his team will feature a top-10 defense.
This year, they rank 35th in defensive efficiency.
Maybe some of this should have been expected. The Jayhawks lost the best shot-blocker in the country (Jeff Withey) and a lock-down perimeter defender (Travis Releford). New foul guidelines have opened up the game, increasing scoring and offensive numbers.
But back in October, Self still believed in his team’s defensive promise. He envisioned Andrew Wiggins blowing up the passing lane, and Wayne Selden Jr. slaloming past opponents in transition.
“We actually have wings that can run through passes,” Self said then, “which leads to offense, which leads to highlight plays.”
In theory, athleticism would translate into defensive stops, and the defense would filter into offense. In reality, Kansas has struggled to force turnovers and create offensive opportunities in transition.
“I thought we’d be a little bit better than we are,” Self says, “but if I thought we’d be great, I probably misevaluated that because I think that this team can be good defensively. I don’t know if we can be the best defensive team we’ve ever had, but I certainly think we can improve on that.”
In Round 1 against the Longhorns, Texas freshman guard Isaiah Taylor controlled the game, beating Kansas’ Naadir Tharpe off the dribble at will. The Jayhawks couldn’t solve Texas’ pick-and-rolls, and Taylor finished with 23 points, looking like a Mustang motoring past a Taurus.
“I feel like we can get better,” Tharpe says, “if we come in with the mindset every game to start off on the defensive end.”
It is, of course, in Self’s nature to worry about every microscopic detail on the defensive end. Defense travels, he says. If you want to establish success in the long-term, it starts with stops.
But the Jayhawks are still just a few victories away from lapping the field in the Big 12 race. They still rank among the best defenses in the conference, and they rank in the top 40 nationally in most defensive categories. Most programs would probably take those numbers. But for Self, it’s just not up to standards.
In the end, there’s no secret sauce for March success. But four months into the season, Self says his players are not resigned to just being good on defense. They can still get better. He’s trying, at least.
“I’m a big believer that you can teach kids to do anything,” Self says. “If we’re not good defensively, that’s on me because I haven’t done a good-enough job of getting them to play that way. There’s no excuse for not being good on that end.”