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Is Kansas Actually a National Title Contender?

Bill Self’s defensively inept, 3-draining squad is just as likely to win the national title as it is to flame out in the Sweet 16 against Clemson

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There was a moment earlier this season when it looked like, for the first time in more than a decade, Kansas might not win the Big 12 regular-season championship. After rising to no. 2 in the AP poll in November, the typically dominant Jayhawks looked shaky, dropping games at home to Arizona State and Texas Tech and at a neutral site against Washington.

As the year went on, they found their footing, and while the Jayhawks never quite turned into the domineering bulldozer fans have come to expect from a Bill Self outfit, they managed to rise above their nearest in-conference challengers. By season’s end, Kansas claimed its 14th consecutive conference crown and was awarded a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. And despite a tight first half against opening-round opponent Penn, and an 83-79 win against Seton Hall during which they never quite looked in control, the Jayhawks enter Friday’s Sweet 16 tie against Clemson as one of only two top-seeded teams left in the field.

But something has been different in Lawrence this season. Unlike years past when the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, or Ben McLemore roamed campus, this Kansas team is without a true lottery talent. So, rather than focusing around a singular scorer as they have in years past, the Jayhawks have spread the load, with each of their five most frequent starters averaging at least 12 points per contest. That adaptation has given Kansas a chance to make its first Final Four appearance since 2012.

This season’s Kansas team is unlike any that has existed under Self. Through the past 15 years, Kansas has dominated foes thanks to a combination of smothering defense, strong guard play, and a consistent interior presence created by the likes of Thomas Robinson or Joel Embiid. Now, the bruisers and the big men are gone and replaced by a cabal of shooters. And though this shift has paid dividends for the Jayhawks, the creation of this new system wasn’t entirely intentional.

Coming into the year, 6-foot-10, five-star recruit Billy Preston was projected to occupy the post for Kansas. Noted for his athleticism and scoring ability both inside and from distance, Preston would have given the Jayhawks a versatile forward to lean on late in games. But the school held him out of what was supposed to be his debut game against Kentucky in November. Earlier that week, Preston reportedly damaged one of his car’s tires when he hit a curb in Lawrence. No police report was filed, but Kansas sidelined him anyway so they could get “a clearer financial picture specific to the vehicle.” The NCAA began an investigation into the incident that was still ongoing more than two months later, and Preston had enough. He packed his bags and signed a contract to play in Bosnia. He didn’t play a single minute in Lawrence, but something surprising happened in his absence: Kansas started shooting 3s. And lots of them.

Since 2002—the earliest year KenPom data is available—about 30 percent of the Jayhawks’ shots have come from deep. Self’s rosters traditionally shoot from beyond the arc at a lower rate than most teams in the country. This year, the Jayhawks are shooting 41.1 percent of their field goal attempts from deep, and it has paid off: They’re shooting 40.3 percent from 3, for the ninth-best rate in the country. All this has led Kansas to its second-best offensive season on record.

The impressive execution of this new scheme is thanks, in large part, to the play of Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, senior leader Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman. The trio has combined for more than half of Kansas’s points all season and three-quarters of its 3-point attempts. Nearly every play runs through their hands, and when they shoot, most of the time, it’s from deep.

But while raining 3s and spacing the floor has its benefits, it also forces teams to make a trade-off. Kansas is getting fewer second-chance opportunities than it has in the past 17 years, and is reaching the charity stripe less often than all but 20 teams. The lack of an interior dynamo has left the Jayhawks vulnerable on defense, too. There’s a reason Self called this team the softest he’d ever coached in December. Opponents are collecting 31.4 percent of their missed shots, which puts Kansas 293rd nationally in offensive rebounding rate. It gets worse: By KenPom’s metrics, this is the worst defensive season for the Jayhawks on record.

Earlier this year, I likened Kansas to the Houston Rockets because of their penchant for shooting 3s and playing often-mediocre defense. That comparison still holds. If the Jayhawks get hot from deep, they can outscore nearly anyone. But if they hit a cold streak, their defense isn’t strong enough to muscle out ugly games. The Jayhawks’ 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike has been serviceable around the basket, but he isn’t the kind of rim protector necessary to disrupt an opponent’s offensive game plan. Dedric and K.J. Lawson—the brothers who transferred from Memphis to bulk up the Jayhawks’ slight roster—aren’t eligible to suit up until next season. Late addition Silvio De Sousa, a four-star recruit who joined the team in January, was expected to help Kansas replace Preston, but his impact on the team has been negligible. The only players 6-foot-8 or taller that see significant playing time are Mykhailiuk and backup power forward Mitch Lightfoot, and neither did much to prevent Seton Hall big man Angel Delgado from bullying his way through the Jayhawks defense on Saturday in a 24-point, 23-rebound performance.

All of this is to say that betting on Kansas is a risky prospect. In their seven losses this season, the Jayhawks have combined to shoot 29.6 percent from beyond the arc, compared to 43.2 percent shooting in their 29 wins. And while players like Newman and Graham have carried Kansas this far thanks to the deep ball, it’s not uncommon for talented teams to fall in March due to streaky shooting.

For the Jayhawks to reach the national championship, it’s likely they’ll have to go through Duke and Villanova—two teams well versed in that kind of heartbreak. Both have reputations for entering the tournament as highly-seeded teams with explosive offenses that lean heavily on the deep ball and defenses with just enough holes to allow a hot-shooting, athletic underdog to end their run early. Though the Jayhawks carry similar risk, they have the firepower to best even the strongest blue blood, and a potential matchup against Duke’s 2-3 zone defense—one that begs opponents to shoot 3s—in the Elite Eight should excite Kansas fans, if their team makes it that far.

In the next round, the Jayhawks will face Bizarro Kansas: Clemson. The fifth-seeded Tigers are Kansas’s inverse, boasting the seventh-best defense in the country, and the 43rd-best offense. Despite losing small forward Donte Grantham—arguably their best player—to a torn ACL in January, they’ve held opponents to just 34.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc and the seventh-lowest shooting percentage from inside of it. And despite entering their second-round matchup against Auburn as a 1.5-point underdog, Clemson held Auburn to a season-low 53 points on 25.8 percent shooting. Kansas is projected to beat Clemson by only one.

Just four games stand between the Jayhawks and their first national championship in a decade. One slow start or cold shooting night could derail their run. With foes like Duke and Villanova staring down the barrel, anything less than perfection will lead to an early exit. But if Kansas continues to shoot like it has since the start of the tournament, there might not be a team in the field that can keep up.