LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The hallmark of Kansas under Bill Self has always been defense, the kind of gritty, in-your-face man-to-man that suffocates and frustrates everyone who sets foot in Allen Fieldhouse.
So when he called this year’s bunch of Jayhawks the “poorest defensive team we’ve had” in 13 seasons in Lawrence, the bar isn’t exactly low. They’re still holding opponents to about 39 percent from the field and showed in wins over Duke, UAB and Georgia they can get after it.
But if third-ranked Kansas wants to win its 13th straight Big 12 title, and reach its first Final Four since 2012, everyone on the roster is aware their defense must be even better.
Far better than in a 90-88 victory over Kansas State on Tuesday night.
“They scored 88 points. I think it’s terrible,” said Svi Mykhailiuk, who scored the controversial buzzer-beating layup to give the Jayhawks the win. “Me and my teammates we know we played bad and we know that we need to get better because … we got to play defense to win games.
“If we want to win,” Mykhailiuk said, “we need to become a defensive team.”
Like the teams that have taken Kansas the farthest in the NCAA Tournament.
The group that won the national championship for Self in 2008 held teams to 37.9 percent shooting, tops in the Big 12 and third nationally. That was part of a run over 10 years in which the Jayhawks led the league in defense eight times and never finished worse than 13th nationally.
The Jayhawks’ defensive collapse doesn’t appear to be an isolated, one-year incident, either.
They’ve finished lower than 20th nationally each of the past four years, led the Big 12 once, and were ranked 50th in the NCAA and fifth in the league heading into Tuesday night’s game.
In other words, Self realizes that he has a problem.
“Pride would probably be a concern. Toughness would be a concern,” he said. “The thing about it is defense is like offense. You don’t just practice it one day or two days and get better. It’s something that you’ve got to have some pride to want to get better.”
Self acknowledged he thought this bunch of Jayhawks would be one of his best defensive teams, not one of his worst. And the makeup of his roster would seem to back up the prediction.
Over the course of the season, Self has embraced a lineup featuring four backcourt players, making Kansas one of the quickest teams in the nation. Mykhailiuk and freshman sensation Josh Jackson are both 6-foot-8, meaning they are versatile enough to cover big wing players or even post players. And the guard tandem of Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham are two of the toughest competitors around.
Yet none of that has translated to defense, and it hasn’t since the very start of the season, when the Jayhawks lost to Indiana 103-99 in overtime.
“You just don’t get this bad overnight defensively,” Self said, “and it’s going to take time for us to get better defensively too. I’d like to see some marginal improvement, no question, from a competitive standpoint and a pride standpoint. We have a lot more than what we’re giving right now.”
The Jayhawks’ saving grace so far is that, while this may be the poorest defensive team Self has had in Lawrence, it may also be the best offensive team.
They’re averaging 86.8 points, which borders on the top 10 nationally. But is that enough to offset all deficiencies at the other end of the floor?
“We never put together multiple stops when we were up and that’s what we developed last year,” senior forward Landen Lucas said Tuesday night, after the Wildcats gave the Jayhawks a scare.
“We’ve got to develop it again this year,” he added. “When we get a comfortable lead, we need to get three or four stops in a row and put it out of reach.”
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