There’s a lot that happens in basketball that goes unnoticed.
It’s part of the reason that I’ve enjoyed the recent online contributions from Jordan Sperber. A former New Mexico State video coordinator and also creator of an analytics-based email newsletter each week, Sperber has revealed many of the hidden details in college basketball games through both his Twitter account and YouTube channel.
I figured it’d be interesting to get some Kansas-specific insights from him, and so I asked him to re-watch the first half of KU’s 79-63 home victory over Texas Tech (this ranked as the Jayhawks’ best performance of the season based on Bart Torvik’s “Game Score” measure).
Here are five things Sperber saw:
Dedric’s hot spot
Dedric Lawson was the first-half star, taking advantage of smart positioning by Bill Self and his coaching staff.
Time and again, Lawson was able to attack Texas Tech in transition while entering the play as a trailer.
Remember, the Jayhawks started the year with a two-big lineup (before Udoka Azubuike was injured), and only later in the season was Lawson able to thrive in these situations while being guarded by the other team’s 5 man.
Sperber put together a highlight video this season of Lawson’s playmaking as a trailer, and he noticed then that most of the clips came from games in the second half of the season when Lawson had been moved more to the perimeter and also had been given more freedom to shoot threes.
We can see immediately why this is a tough defensive assignment for the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Norense Odiase; he’s not typically going to take on a player, like in the first clip, who can pump-fake to get him in the air then finish with a left-handed floater in the lane.
Lawson’s last three-pointer, though, was more on Odiase. The Texas Tech big man does a good job of what’s called “shadowing” here, as he crowds the ball handler in transition when Lawson is still on the other end of the court.
But once Charlie Moore starts to drive, it’s not Odiase’s job to help anymore. Not only is teammate Davide Moretti (No. 25) doing a decent job to contain Moore, but Tariq Owens (No. 11) is behind to provide some rim protection as well.
Ideally for Texas Tech, Odiase would “shadow” until the free-throw line, basically pretending to help until he can get back to Lawson — his primary responsibility.
Instead, two extra steps cost the Red Raiders three additional points.
Success in the middle
Texas Tech plays a unique defensive style, as one of the team’s important principles is trying to force teams into baseline drives.
By doing this, the Red Raiders are able to set up a strong line of help defense and also are able to step in for offensive fouls; in fact, a recent Ken Pomeroy article had the Red Raiders No. 1 in the nation in charge-taking since 2016 while averaging 3.4 per game.
In this game, though, KU did a good job of breaking down the defense by getting some middle drives. These are a disaster for Texas Tech, as the team’s defensive identity isn’t equipped to handle this type of action.
Here’s a good example from Devon Dotson. Though Jarrett Culver (No. 23) should be trying to force Dotson toward the bottom of the screen, Dotson makes a quick move left to get middle. This leaves Brandone Francis (No. 1) in a no-win position, and when he helps on the drive, Dotson makes the simple pass to the corner to get Ochai Agbaji an open three.
One more: Agbaji is able to get left here around Francis ... whose job was to force the KU player to the baseline.
If Agbaji went baseline, Culver would have plenty of time to step up outside the lane to take a charge. Instead, the middle drive means the help is late, and Culver’s charge attempt comes inside the restricted area for a blocking foul.
A good play ...
Part of the fun going back here is trying to see what Self tried to do X’s and O’s-wise against Texas Tech.
One set Sperber liked is an action he says is often used in the NBA. Here, KU sets two “step-up” screens, and Sperber says the beauty of it is how Self is able to help free a shot by occupying the backside of the defense.
Francis (No. 1) is the one to watch. Because Agbaji sets the first screen, Francis is on alert, focusing on his own defensive assignment. This is important a few seconds later, as he’s not in as good of a position to help when Lawson fires up his three.
Sperber says this is actually decent defense by Texas Tech. Owens (No. 11) recovers to contest Lawson’s shot some, while Francis did “stunt” at Lawson when he received the pass to act as if he might be coming.
In the end, though, it’s just a tough action to guard ... especially when you have a big man like Lawson who can make that shot.
... and a not-so good one
That doesn’t mean that everything Self attempted worked as he envisioned.
A good look is the first possession of the game — typically reserved for a play that the coach has drawn up to take advantage of the opponent.
We’ve already talked about how Texas Tech likes to force opponents to baseline drives, and it appears that Self wanted to use that knowledge to try to get KU a good shot.
Agbaji cuts through the lane, and he appears to have two roles: distract Owens (No. 11) to create a potential driving angle for Dotson and also set a screen on Matt Mooney (No. 13) to open up teammate Lagerald Vick for a corner three. It also appears teammate Quentin Grimes is reminding Agbaji of the screen he needs to set by pointing.
Dotson gets a ball screen but immediately rejects it to go baseline, and when Owens helps, it appears KU might have an opening for a three.
Except ... Vick is late to the corner. This throws the timing off, and when Dotson passes it, Texas Tech’s defense has recovered.
We don’t know the exact details here, but it’s worth noting that Vick had a few earlier examples in the season of not executing playcalls.
This still ends as a successful possession, though, when Vick makes a good basketball play outside of set offense. After going baseline, he gets the ball to Lawson inside when Texas Tech’s defense fails to rotate.
Not as Self drew it up, but two points nonetheless.
Texas Tech runs old-school Bobby Knight motion offense, which means the Red Raiders constantly cut and also set as many flare screens as any team in the country.
Sperber says, for the most part, KU’s defense was prepared for Texas Tech’s “actions.” Here’s a good example, where Lawson correctly sags to the lane to prevent a lob, knowing his man (Odiase) is not an outside shooting threat. From there, KU’s switching of guard-to-guard screens takes Texas Tech out of sync offensively.
That doesn’t mean KU’s defense was perfect. Sperber pointed out this example in particular, as Lawson — guarding two ball screens on the same possession — does two completely different things.
The first time, he shows some bounce, taking on the screen around the elbow while holding his hands up to prevent a pass inside before recovering. Good technique.
The next ball screen, though, he reaches clumsily for a steal, leaving him off balance and in no-man’s land defensively. Though Mooney doesn’t see the pass in real time, Lawson’s gamble leaves Owens (No. 11) open under the basket for a few seconds, even if Texas Tech can’t take advantage.
It goes to show that a few seconds of good defense is not always enough to produce a good result, just a few bad seconds won’t always cost you either.
In the end, KU mostly dictated play — on both ends — in this first half while also making open shots.
That was the formula for a 46-26 halftime lead ... and also the groundwork for the Jayhawks’ most impressive win of the season.