Bill Self has used the same expression so much in recent years that it’s become a core tenet of his coaching philosophy. You can hear it in practices. You can hear it at press conferences. Sometimes, you hear his players begin to repeat the mantra.
At his core, Self is a defensive-minded coach first, and so a conversation about his defense lead into this:
“Cut the head off,” Self says, “and they say the body will follow.”
To be an elite defensive team, Self says, you must first have guards that can pressure the basketball, heating up opposing point guards and taking teams out of what they want to do. For more than a decade, Kansas had guards like this, and it’s one reason Self’s teams always ranked among the best defensive units in the country. Last season, the Jayhawks really didn’t, and that’s one reason why they were so uncharacteristically average on defense last season.
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“We really didn’t have good individual defenders,” Self says. “(The) point guard spot didn’t put great pressure on the ball. The thing you want to do is cut the head off … we didn’t do that much last year.”
Last season, the Jayhawks ranked 31st in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, the worst mark of the Self era. For Self, who built his Kansas program on defense and toughness, it was especially frustrating. From 2006-13, the Jayhawks never ranked worse than 11th nationally in defensive efficiency. For however it looked from the outside, Self says now, last year’s KU team could score better than most. So too often, he says, the Jayhawks would be content to try and outscore the team on the other end of the floor.
“I don’t think we had the mind-set,” Self says.
So as Kansas opens its regular season at 7 p.m. Friday against UC Santa Barbara, Self is focused on forging a return to the stifling defensive play that paved the way for 10 straight Big 12 regular-season championships. When the Jayhawks take the floor at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time, the Jayhawks are hoping for a defensive reboot.
They’ve already shown signs.
During Kansas’ 109-56 preseason victory over Emporia State on Tuesday, the Jayhawks employed a full-court man-to-man pressure after made baskets. It’s something the Jayhawks have used in the past, of course, but it’s a weapon Self hopes to pull out with regularity this season.
“That’s who I hope we are,” Self said.
During preseason practice, Kansas has devoted much time to ball-pressure and picking up opponents all over the floor. Self doesn’t want to use the word “press” — he would prefer to say “pressure” — but he does hope his man-to-man defense can create more havoc for opposing offenses.
“We feel like we got the quickness and the skillset to be able to pressure 90 feet from the basket,” freshman guard Devonte’ Graham says. “(We can) cause turnovers and get easy buckets.”
Some of this is based on necessity. The Jayhawks lack a true rim protector in the interior, and their defense will need to be predicated on stopping teams on the perimeter — not funneling them into an elite shot-blocker as they have in year’s past.
Last year, for example, the Jayhawks were among the worst in the country at forcing turnovers (they ranked 292nd), and that number must improve as well.
Some of this, though, is based on personnel. Self believes that Graham and sophomore Frank Mason can be solid perimeter defenders, and Kansas’ staff believes that sophomore guard Wayne Selden and junior Perry Ellis are much improved from last season.
“It’s just mental,” Ellis said. “That’s the key thing.”
The Jayhawks’ defense will be tested early. On Friday, they will face UC Santa Barbara and reigning Big West player of the year Alan Williams, a 6-foot-7 center who led the nation in rebounding last season. On Tuesday, KU will face No. 1 Kentucky and the Wildcats’ terrifying blend of 7-footers and McDonald’s All-Americans.
For Kansas, the goal is a firm first step, a sterling performance in the days before facing the No. 1 team in the country. For Self, like always, it will begin on defense.
“I’m a little nervous,” Self said. “I think everybody is before you play your first game because you really don’t know what to expect. But I’m excited, too. Nervous doesn’t mean anything negative. It just means unknown.”
UC Santa Barbara at No. 5 Kansas
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Records: Opener for both teams
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
TV: Cox 22
UC Santa Barbara at No. 5 Kansas
UCSB: The Gauchos return four starters and 11 players from a team that finished 21-9 overall and second in the Big West Conference last season. Senior forward Alan Williams is the reigning Big West player of the year and led the nation in rebounding last season with 11.5 per game. He also led the Big West with 21.5 points per game. “He’s a man down there,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “and he goes after the ball like a man.” UC Santa Barbara, which is picked to finish second in the Big West this season, is coached by Bob Williams, who is in his 17th season at the school. According to advanced metrics at KenPom.com, the Gauchos are projected as the 92nd best team in the country.
KANSAS: The revamped Jayhawks, featuring four freshmen and zero seniors, begin their 12th season under Bill Self. On Thursday, Self confirmed four starters for Friday’s opener — sophomore guards Wayne Selden and Frank Mason and junior forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor. There are a couple options for the fifth spot; freshman guard Devonte’ Graham started the first exhibition game and looked poised on Tuesday against Emporia State. Freshman wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk started the second exhibition game. “Svi didn’t play well offensively,” Self said. “But he played a lot better after watching the tape.” Sophomore Brannen Greene and freshman Kelly Oubre will also be in the rotation on Friday. For now, Self expects to play nine or 10 players while sorting through different combinations.