How an early-season challenge brought innovation for KU basketball

A (way too) early look at the 2017-18 Kansas Jayhawks basketball team

Star beat writer Jesse Newell breaks down what coach Bill Self and KU might look like next season.
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Star beat writer Jesse Newell breaks down what coach Bill Self and KU might look like next season.

Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend could sense a change was coming — just like the one that had happened more than a decade earlier.

With each October practice last year, one thing was becoming increasingly clear: The KU staff was going to have to develop a new style to get its talented perimeter players on the court.

The Jayhawks’ four-guard lineup was originally supposed to be a backup plan. Coach Bill Self envisioned playing it sparingly while using a primary lineup with forward Carlton Bragg at the 4.

The latter idea never fully developed. Bragg wasn’t emerging to step into Perry Ellis’ role as a scoring forward, while wings Josh Jackson, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick appeared ready for extended minutes.

“I think the more we practiced,” Townsend said during the NCAA Tournament in March, “we saw that (small lineup) was having our best team on the floor.”

There was one problem: KU had yet to create a “small ball” offense.

The Jayhawks, year after year, had a seemingly endless supply of big men. That made it easy to stick with a three-out, two-in design.

This past season, though, needed something different. And it helped to have the versatility the 6-foot-8 Jackson provided.

“When you get a guy like Josh, and he can be like a queen on the chessboard, where you can move him all over and he could do anything, it makes it a lot easier,” Townsend said. “It’s almost what Duke did with Jabari Parker, and Jayson Tatum this year. It makes it a lot easier, and you can do just so many more things and play around him.”

KU still needed more of an offense all its own … and Townsend could remember a similar situation working out well for the Jayhawks.

During the 2004-05 season, KU’s staff faced adversity when forward Wayne Simien suffered a thumb injury that was slated to keep him out a month. The Jayhawks’ coaches wanted to pivot from an inside-out attack to one focused on guard Keith Langford, with assistant coach Tim Jankovich suggesting a new ball-screen offense before the team’s overtime victory over Georgia Tech on New Year’s Day.

That offense — necessitated by a sudden change — developed into KU’s “fist” set, becoming a staple of Self’s teams over the next 12 seasons.

Now, the coaches needed a similar epiphany, spending late nights in the office to brainstorm.

“Just in there talking, drawing it up,” Townsend said. “‘Hey, if we fill the corners and this guy drives it here, he could pitch to him and he could drive under.’ 

The coaches looked in plenty of places for inspiration. They pulled some of Fred Hoiberg’s sets from Iowa State, observing how he utilized forward Georges Niang. They also called former assistant Doc Sadler, who spent time on Hoiberg’s staff, and even pulled video of Kentucky’s dribble-drive offense.

“You just watch stuff and see how they did,” Townsend said, “and take what you’ve got and fit it with your talent personalities.”

Coaches hashed out the details and debated the finer points. Eventually, KU’s “four game” was born — a combination of weaves, ball screens and spacing that melded the staff’s favorite concepts.

The implementation wasn’t perfect. When going over it in practice, the Jayhawks would often end up with three guards on the same side of the court — an end result that left the balance out of whack.

“It probably took us about a good month and some change to start getting a flow to it,” KU guard Devonté Graham said in March. “Once we got it, knew where to pass and cut, and Landen (Lucas) would time the ball screens, we noticed that it could be something deadly.”

Townsend was most pleased that the offense provided basic rules, yet also allowed for individual freedom. The Jayhawks had a team full of high IQ basketball players, which meant those guys could look for their own mismatches within the flow of the offense.

“You kind of give those guys ownership of, ‘Hey, you’re the ones on the floor. What’s working?’ ” Townsend said. “I think the more they have ownership in it, the more responsibility you take, the better you’re going to do with it.”

It didn’t take long for KU’s offense to thrive. The Jayhawks ranked fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency last season — their best mark since 2011 — and also had the top point-per-possession total of any team in the NCAA Tournament.

When asked to grade the new offense, Graham rated it as an “A-plus-plus.”

“When you’ve got guys — all four of us — that can make plays and knock down shots and spread the floor, it’s tough to guard,” Graham said.

Townsend realized by March that — like 13 years ago — a difficult challenge had brought out the best in KU’s coaching staff.

Necessity had become the mother of invention, and an offense that didn’t exist 12 months ago quickly became one of the nation’s best … all because things didn’t go as planned.

“That’s just what coaches do,” Townsend said. “You play with stuff and see what works.”

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell