WHERE KANSAS BASKETBALL NEEDS TO IMPROVE
If there’s anything that’s predictable in the often crazy world of college basketball, it’s the status of Kansas in the national elite. The Jayhawks have won or shared twelve straight conference titles. Since head coach Bill Self arrived in 2004, the program has at least reached the Elite Eight six times, the Final Four twice and won it all once. For college basketball bettors that can make the task of finding value tougher—there’s no sliding under the radar with this program—and this year is no exception, where oddsmakers are offering a stingy 9-1 price on KU to win a national championship.
Those prices mean we have to adopt a critical eye toward this edition of the Jayhawks. Admittedly, that’s not always easy to do. They’re 9-1 and are ranked third in the nation. Their only loss, to Indiana, came in the season opener and was in overtime. Kansas has knocked off Duke. When you look at the roster you see everything from valuable experience—terrific senior point guard Frank Mason—to explosive young talent—freshman Josh Jackson, fully expected to go in the top five of next spring’s NBA draft.
But there are some little flies in the ointment for Self that need to be watched carefully as he steers his team toward March Madness. Let’s start by breaking down the two notable games Kansas has played, the loss to Indiana and the win over Duke.
In both games, Kansas had problems with perimeter defense. Indiana and Duke combined to make 23-for-50 from three-point range and it’s very difficult to win when an opponent shoots 46 percent from behind the arc. Kansas should consider themselves fortunate to have gotten one win out of the two. Specifically, Indiana’s James Blackmon and Duke’s Luke Kennard were able to light up the Jayhawk defense.
It’s easy to dismiss three-point shooting as being the product of luck—getting hot or cold at the right time. And there’s no denying it’s the least reliable of all basketball virtues on a night-to-night basis. But there’s also no point in denying a trend. Go to any gym in your local area and you’ll see a handful of shooters that are money if they can spot up on the arc and shoot without duress. Now think about playing against the top amateur shooters in the country. Kansas has to improve in this area against top teams and it’s worth paying close attention to this throughout Big 12 play.
Conversely, Kansas did not shoot well from the three-point line in either game, combining to go 9-for-36. This is a team built around its guard play and it can’t expect to lose battles on the perimeter and still win six in a row in the NCAA Tournament.
There are lot of good reasons to like Kansas. Mason, along with Devonte’ Graham make for an excellent backcourt. Jackson is a do-everything player on the wing. It’s well possible that players like Carlton Bragg and Landen Lucas can step up and provide more of an option on the inside.
Most important, there’s time. There’s time for Self to tweak his defenses to better handle the perimeter. Because Kansas’ price is so low, it means handicappers can wait and see without worrying about the price dropping much lower. The Jayhawks are very much worth keeping an eye on, but they need to make improvement between now and March.