University of Kansas

KU puts emphasis on defense

LAWRENCE — For individual players, it is only natural that success on the offensive end will often result in increased intensity on the defensive end — a reaction that Kansas coach Bill Self observed on Monday night in the case of senior forward Mario Little, who poured in 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting against Missouri.

"With Mario, I saw an extra step in him defensively," Self said. "I thought he had an adrenaline rush because his shot was falling. That's key from an individual standpoint."

But Self doesn't view his team as a bunch of individuals. On offense, he judges how well the team plays by how quickly the ball moves from side to side and how often that movement creates open looks. The Jayhawks have shared the basketball as well as any team in the country this season, and so it's no surprise that they lead the nation in making 52.4 percent of their field goals.

Unfortunately for No. 2 KU, its offensive team success has not translated often enough into the kind of team defense that Self expects. The Jayhawks may be ranked as the fifth-most efficient defensive team in the country by the Pomeroy College Basketball Rankings — which can be found at kenpom.com — but Self prefers to trust his own eyes instead of the numbers churned out by a detailed statistical model.

"Statistically, we're fine defensively," Self said. "But we're not near where we can potentially get to, I don't think."

The Jayhawks have been facing the same conundrum all season. They can score with such ease that getting stops on defense doesn't have to be as much of a priority.

"When we're making shots," KU guard Tyshawn Taylor said, "I don't want to say we relax on defense, but it's almost like we feel like we can just score, and if we don't get this stop right here, we'll get a quick bucket."

Self knows this is the case, so he spent about an hour on Wednesday drilling one idea into his players' heads: If Kansas doesn't start playing defense as if it is going to miss every shot it takes, the Jayhawks will pay for it down the road.

"I know it's coach-speak, but defense does win championships," Self said. "In every competitive sporting contest, if you have great defense going against great offense, the majority of the time great defense wins. Great pitching against great hitting... it doesn't make a difference. When great is going against great, defense usually wins."

It is no coincidence then that KU's only loss this season came to Texas, which Pomeroy ranks as the No. 1 defensive team in the country and the 25th-best offensive team.

Simply put, playing great team defense takes focus. It is much more complicated than five guys committing to not letting their man score. Taylor says that he considers himself a good on-ball defender but is lacking in help defense. Keep in mind that Self has been trying to teach Taylor how to guard his man and help his teammates at the same time for nearly three years now.

"I'm not the best help-defense player," Taylor said, "just because I'm not in the right position. I think I'm quick enough to get there, so I'm not in the right position a lot of the time. Just being quick enough isn't good enough."

KU guard Brady Morningstar does not have Taylor's speed, but he has become Kansas' best help defender because he is willing to trust his positioning.

"We need to get back to being a better defensive team as a unit," Morningstar said.

In conference games, opponents are shooting 42 percent against Kansas. Self likes that number down in the 37-percent range.

He has an expectation for his team the rest of the way, and it comes out in a question:

"In a game where you're not making shots, or a game where you're playing with foul trouble, can you get four or five stops in a row in the clutch part of the game?" Self asked. "I don't think that this team does that consistently enough."

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