University of Kansas

Here’s one area where KU’s Bill Self hopes his defense can improve

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson was on an island against the Big 12’s best player. And Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver was ready to test him.

It was the second half of the teams’ game Feb. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse, and after the Red Raiders set a ball screen, guard Ochai Agbaji followed Texas Tech big man Norense Odiase to the lane.

That left Lawson — intentionally — to square up against Texas Tech’s 19-point-per-game scorer.

Lawson held his own. Culver tried to drive into traffic, and KU’s Devon Dotson reached in for a poke-away steal, converting that into a layup on the other end.

It was a KU defensive sequence that likely wouldn’t have taken place a few years ago.

The Jayhawks, in this instance, followed a sport-wide trend, switching defensively to help counteract a rise in outside shooting.

“I actually think (switching) does help, because it certainly eliminates a lot of the scouting,” KU coach Bill Self told The Star last week. “Now people are trying to figure out ways to score, take advantage of the switches as opposed to running their plays to get baskets, because a lot of the plays are eliminated with switches. I do think it can be a positive.”

Self admits this remains a learning process; just because his team has been switching more doesn’t mean the tactic has been as successful as he’d hoped.

“I do believe you should switch to take something away, and I don’t think the last two years we’ve been great at that,” Self said. “I think we have to become much better defensively moving forward, and that’s on us to get them that way.”

Ideally, Self would like his team’s mentality to reflect what he’s seen from Texas Tech.

Self believes it was obvious that Texas Tech — last season — was not only the Big 12’s best team at switching, but it also did that with the goal of making an opponent uncomfortable. The Red Raiders’ “no middle” defensive style put constant pressure on opponents, which led to the team posting the nation’s 14th-best turnover rate and top overall defense.

“I think we could really help ourself by having that same mind-set that if you’re going to switch, we’re not switching to be lazy; we’re switching to deny or take something away,” Self said. “Then I do think we can become better defensively that way.”

It’s perhaps a good time to appreciate just how much things have changed in recent years.

Self has long held the belief that the best defenders never get screened. It was part of a bigger message of toughness he preached to many of his players in the past.

The game, though, has shifted. With the rise of the three-point shot, many times it’s difficult for defenses to recover to outside shooters after hedging on screens.

Switching provides another option. For example, Self went to switching all five defenders in his team’s home game against Villanova after the Wildcats hit a few early threes.

The conditions still have to be right for the tactic to be successful.

“It’s hard to switch that much if you play two bigs, because all it takes is an early ball screen to force a bad matchup,” Self said, “then you’re playing catch-up the whole possession.”

There can be other challenges as well.

For one, switching requires constant communication in order to avoid blown assignments. There’s also the matter of foot speed, as certain big men are better at sliding defensively than others.

“That’s why Doke (Udoka Azubuike) was so invaluable for us, because when we switched ball screens late clock, he was pretty good at guarding the point guard or the 2 guard after the switch,” Self said. “I didn’t think we were quite as good at that this year, without him.”

It wasn’t that long ago that switching on defense was seen by many coaches as the easy way out, or perhaps even a “cop out.”

With the sport as it is now, Self says he refutes that general notion.

“It’s not that at all,” he said. “Strategically, it’s actually smart in many ways.”

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.