Six degrees of Kevin Bacon indicates the Jayhawks have issues
Kansas beat UCLA 77-76 at Allen Fieldhouse last Thursday, a game that could easily had gone the other way. UCLA lost to Montana 66-57 on Sunday at home.
Montana has lost to Nevada, Utah and Portland. Nevada has lost to Seattle Pacific (a D-2 team), Pacific, Pepperdine, George Washington, Boston University and South Dakota State. Utah has lost to Utah State and Oral Roberts (KU can sympathize).
So the Jayhawks wouldn’t even be the best team in Division 2, couldn’t beat smart kids, Mormons or Kevin Bacon.
As Weekend at Bernie’s 3 lead character Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friends.
Sure, a not-so-good UCLA team showed some KU flaws, but it was also the perfect combination for a near upset. Josh Honeycutt had the best game of his career. He made 5 of 6 treys and scored 33 points. Honeycutt’s previous career high was 18 points, is shooting 22.7 percent from beyond the arc for the rest of the season, and he followed his 33-point game with 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting against Montana. Joshua Smith scored 17 points and had 13 rebounds in 28 minutes against Kansas – all season highs. Smith previous season-high for minutes played was 20 minutes and he had four fouls in every game until the KU game.
But, nonetheless, the Jayhawks have some areas where they need to improve to win in their next big test on Tuesday against No. 13 Memphis at Madison Square Garden, and here they are (in order of importance).
In the two games that have been against big schools (UCLA and Arizona), Kansas has been outrebounded. The Jayhawks were exceptionally awful on the boards in the first half on Thursday when UCLA had more offensive rebounds (10) than the Jayhawks had defensive rebounds (8). They rebounded just 38.9 percent of misses for the half.
One of the keys to Kansas rebounding better is keeping Markieff Morris on the court. Morris is the team’s top rebounder at 9.1 rebounds per game, but he has played a combined 39 minutes in the last two games because of foul trouble. When Markieff has been on the court, he has been dominant on the defensive boards. He is the top defensive rebounder* in the nation according to kenpom.com’s advanced statistics.
*This stat tracks the percentage of possible defensive rebounds a player gets when on the court.
Without a dominant rebounding big man, which the stats would say Markieff is that, the Jayhawks need to do a better job of team rebounding. Team rebounding comes down to boxing out and effort. Two things the Jayhawks lacked in that first half against UCLA.
Kansas should be able to control the boards against Memphis. Memphis has a plus-15 rebounding margin on the season (plus-2.2 per game), which is not very impressive considering the patsies every team plays early in the season. In comparison, KU is plus-39 on the boards (plus-5.6 per game).
2. Guarding small forwards
This is where Memphis might have an advantage, a la UCLA. The Tigers have a roster full of swing players with five players in their rotation between 6-3 and 6-9 who all play on the perimeter.
Leading scorer Wesley Witherspoon could be the most difficult player to match up with. Witherspoon will technically match up against one of KU’s big men because Memphis plays so many guards. Marcus Morris will be guarding him most of the game. Witherspoon could give Marcus problems driving the ball at him, similar to how Marcus struggled to guard Arizona’s Derrick Williams.
Will Barton, a 6-6 freshman who averages 11.9 points per game, could be another matchup problem. Barton will be guarded by a combination of Brady Morningstar, Travis Releford and Mario Little. That was the combo that got torched by Honeycutt. Honeycutt had an advantage on all three players. He was able to rise up and shoot over the shorter Morningstar. He could take both Releford and Little off the dribble or free himself with off-the-ball screens, which Little in particular struggled to get around.
In the past four seasons, the Jayhawks have had a traditional small forward. Brandon Rush was a great perimeter defender and Xavier Henry was the prototype small forward with his combination of size, quickness and strength. Little looks the part, but he’s too slow to keep anyone in front of him and that’s the reason Self plays him in the post. Releford has the size and is at least quicker than Little, but he was so out of sorts offensively against UCLA that he only played nine minutes.
Self trusts Morningstar to play the majority of the minutes, so he needs to get back to his sophomore ways when he was considered a defensive stopper. This could be a problem the rest of the season for the Hawks. Luckily, a lot of teams play three guards on the perimeter and do not have a small forward.
3. Post defense
This is the most concerning area for KU the rest of the season, but it’s last on the list because it should not be a problem against Memphis. Memphis runs the dribble-drive offense and its last focus is trying to get the ball to a back-to-the-basket scorer. Even if the Tigers played a different style, they don’t have the personnel to play inside-out.
But after watching the tape of the UCLA game, Memphis coach Josh Pastner might want to consider posting up Witherspoon. The Jayhawks and the Morris twins have been playing lazy post defense. They play behind their man in the post and allowed Smith to bury them underneath the basket, which allowed the 450 pounder* to score easily.
*An estimate. At one point, my girlfriend said, “Look at his legs.” I’m (as in me, not my girlfriend) a 34-inch waist, and Joshua Smith is probably a 34-inch calf.
Against weaker competition early in the season, the Jayhawks could get away with playing such lazy post defense. They’re also trying to make up for their inability to guard in the post by often bringing a double team. It’s been an adjustment from life with Cole Aldrich (and before that Sasha Kaun), when they could funnel everything to Aldrich and he did not need any help.
Similar to rebounding, Kansas needs to make post defense a team effort. If the only way to get the Morris twins not to play butt-hole defense is to make them play in front, they need the guards to help on the backside*. Essentially, they just need to play with more effort and be in the right position. That would also help cut down on their foul problems.
*I realize that sentence sounded dirty from start to finish.
In conclusion, I’m probably putting too much into the UCLA game. UCLA played its best game of the season; Kansas probably played its worse. Still, all three problems were also problem areas against Arizona and will continue to creep up if the Jayhawks do not get them corrected. They’re also problems that even the savior Josh Selby cannot correct.