Three months ago, when the Kansas Jayhawks began this season, they were convinced that they would excel playing fast, overwhelming opponents with their unbridled athleticism.
And there was every reason to believe them. Tyshawn Taylor's most obvious attributes were his speed and his natural gift for creating in the open floor, and there was no telling how great a pairing he'd be with the brash and talented Josh Selby once he became eligible. Big men Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson are all comfortable getting out and running, so the guards would have plenty of options for a good dish.
But somewhere along the way, KU coach Bill Self came to a rather surprising conclusion: His team, while being highly efficient in half-court offense, was not actually very good at finishing a fast break.
"I'll tell you where we're a really poor team is in transition," Self said in the moments after his team pulverized Texas Tech last week. "We botch up more two-on-ones or three-on-twos than any team around. We've gotta get better at that, because those are the easiest scoring opportunities. You get five of those a game, you gotta come away with 10 points. We've come away with two or four."
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If history holds true, the Jayhawks will have plenty of chances to work out the kinks tonight against Missouri at 8 in Allen Fieldhouse. When MU coach Mike Anderson's teams have come to Lawrence, the Jayhawks have won the four games by an average of 16.5 points and have made the Tigers regret even thinking about bringing their full-court press across the border.
"They force you to make plays," Self said. "It's a strategy that I think is very, very good and sound. That has been a weakness of our ballclub this year, being able to take advantage when other people make mistakes from pressuring. That would be a huge key. In years past, we've been successful in taking advantage of those opportunities."
While Kansas' attack in the open floor has been lacking, Missouri's press has been equally disappointing, if not more. Tonight, something will have to give.
The Tigers are only ninth in Big 12 games in scoring defense, giving up 72.8 points per game. This problem shows up on the stat sheet in "points in the paint," because the opposition is beating MU's press and getting to the basket for layups and dunks. In losses at Texas and Oklahoma State, Missouri gave up 30 and 24 points in the paint, respectively. In an overtime loss at Texas A&M, the Tigers gave up 36.
Heck, even in Saturday night's victory over Colorado in Columbia, Missouri gave up 30 points in the paint.
"It's mostly our press," MU forward Ricardo Ratliffe said. "If people are breaking our press, they have a good chance at winning the basketball game, or staying in the basketball game. If our press gets beat, then we have to have another person help out. And in the losses, if you're watching closely, that's what (isn't) happening. We've got to keep playing hard and have more pride in our defense."
Kansas will likely have to beat MU's shaky press tonight without Selby, who is "probably doubtful" according to Self with a stress reaction in his right foot. That will mean more time for sophomore guard Elijah Johnson off the bench, and Johnson has not been very smooth of late in transition.
Taylor, surprisingly, hasn't been much better.
"We have to make better decisions on the break," Taylor said.
Marcus Morris indicated that there may be a communication breakdown during two-on-ones and three-on-twos.
"It's normally with a big man and a guard," Morris said. "I feel like the person on the other team doesn't want to be dunked on, so they take the big. But the guard has his mind set on getting it to the big, because that's what we do. I think it'll get better."
Morris acknowledged how annoying Missouri can be —"They're like little gnats that won't leave the kitchen when you leave the dishes in there," he said — but said he didn't think any team could press Kansas for 40 minutes and not get burnt.
Robinson echoed that sentiment.
"We want to play fast," Robinson said. "That's no problem. They can press us. That's what we want."