Kansas coach Bill Self and staff needed to design a new offense.
In practices, Josh Jackson was thriving as a small-ball 4. At the same time, Frank Mason, Devonté Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick were proving that they deserved extended playing time.
This was two years ago, and KU’s basketball coaches put their creativity to use while solving a specific problem: What kind of offense could best fit a team filled with guards who had the ability to both drive and hit outside shots?
“Four game” was created — the dribble weave, four-guard offense many KU fans have become accustomed to seeing — and the Jayhawks have thrived ever since.
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The last two seasons, KU has been top five in Ken Pomeroy’s schedule-adjusted offensive efficiency measure, with the Jayhawks’ innovative look creating driving lanes for guards, space for outside shooters and lob potential for big man Udoka Azubuike.
Now, though, “four game” is about to get its ultimate test with Azubuike sidelined because of an ankle injury and KU transitioning away from a two-big-man setup.
Can it be effective — and still work — with a roster that doesn’t have as many three-point shooters as previous years?
Self indirectly talked about this point during his news conference Thursday. He said he asked the team in a recent practice what the biggest difference was between last year’s squad and this one.
K.J. Lawson had the correct answer.
“He said, ‘Well, last year’s team could bail out the offense by just jumping up and making a three,’” Self said. “Where this year’s team obviously has been inconsistent except for one player doing that.”
Self has cited the stats often lately. Since the opening game against Michigan State, KU has made 40 three-pointers ... with 28 of them coming from one player in Lagerald Vick.
“I think playing four guards is great,” Self said, “(but) you need to be able to make shots when you play four guards.”
KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend also referenced this concern during the team’s Hawk Talk radio show Wednesday. He said in previous games, KU’s plan was to go inside-out offensively because most teams struggle to guard Azubuike down low.
There was another reason this made sense to the coaching staff, though.
“We’re not a great three-point shooting team,” Townsend said. “I’d say that’s the worst part of what we do this year.”
Townsend was quick to say that this doesn’t mean KU can’t make threes. It’s just that this team likely won’t want to force threes like in past years.
There’s still hope for KU’s offense, though, based on the way “Four game” is constructed.
Just take a look at the Jayhawks’ 27-0 run against Wofford on Tuesday. The dribble weave was successful, in part, because guards like Devon Dotson found more space for driving angles and less congestion in the middle when attempting shots at the rim.
Charlie Moore — at 5-foot-11 — also showed flashes of attacking ability, penetrating for a short jumper when KU first started to pull away.
Quentin Grimes, who snapped out of a slump with 14 points, also reported being more comfortable with KU’s smaller setup.
“I think it helped a lot to get more flow, more guards,” Grimes said. “You don’t have to work inside out with those two (Dedric Lawson and Azubuike) and with a monster like Doke. I feel like it’ll help us kind of get in the flow, with the guards getting more touches.”
The fear now for Self and staff — in addition to rebounding and defense taking a hit — is on the perimeter. Wofford was likely caught off guard following Azubuike’s injury, but other teams could sag defenders into the paint while daring KU to make outside shots.
So “Four game” could create open perimeter attempts, something that’s typically an efficient play in today’s game. Will the Jayhawks, though, be able to hit those shots?
There’s some hope here KU should be just fine. Synergy Sports Technology breaks down shots by play type, and the Jayhawks are actually ninth nationally when it comes to points per possession on “spot-up” attempts. Those numbers are no doubt boosted by Lagerald Vick, but Dotson (97th percentile spot-up efficiency) and Grimes (72nd percentile) also have more than held their own when set up for shots by teammates. One would also think that Dedric Lawson is capable of more than his 1-for-11 three-point accuracy so far.
KU won’t — and shouldn’t — take many guarded three-pointers, even with four guards out there. But the key will be keeping the defense honest, and creating open looks that are likely to be made at an acceptable rate.
From a big-picture sense, Self and his staff are about to have their previous genius tested.
Two years ago, they crafted an offense around their specific players, spreading the floor while opening things up on the perimeter for guys like Mason, Mykhailiuk and Graham.
So will that offense remain effective without a bunch of sharpshooters on the perimeter?
All of us are about to find out soon.