KU: The Defending Champ
They had you fooled, didn’t they?
Two underwhelming games into the Big 12 season and some thought maybe these Jayhawks really were vulnerable? Maybe December dominance was more fluke than fully functioning.
But unless Ben McLemore did real damage to his right ankle — Bill Self said it was a sprain and he’d be fine — this team is right on track for Big 12 title No. 9 after a 61-44 pounding of Baylor on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
The proof is in the defense.
As hard as it was to read the names on the back of the Baylor jerseys, they were clear as day compared to the looks Baylor had at the basket. Baylor scored 0.65 points per possession. That was the lowest in the Scott Drew era and the second-best defensive effort by Kansas in the Bill Self era.
And this was a repeatable performance. Kansas can be this good defensively.
All it took was the Jayhawks turning up their intensity a few notches from where it had been in the last few cruises. It’s when they play with great effort that they are one of the best — if not the best — defensive team in the country.
It starts with Jeff Withey, who is always impossible to shoot over, and that wasn’t any different on this night. When Withey was on the floor, Baylor made only 4-of-17 shots (23.5 percent) in the paint in the halfcourt and was outscored 59-35. Kansas is now plus-259 with Withey on the floor this season and only plus-20 when he is on the bench, proving his value on both ends of the court.
What made this defensive effort historic was the added perimeter pressure to what Withey does in the paint — deny and spook. KU’s guards played the passing lanes and also were a nuisance, swiping at the ball anytime a Baylor player tried to gather himself to try to score over KU’s length.
KU also took Baylor star Pierre Jackson out of the game by blitzing nearly every ball screen set for Jackson. Typically, Jackson can sneak his way through two defenders or find a passing lane to hit the roll man. But the Jayhawks were too sharp in their rotations and recoveries.
Last year, a big reason why Baylor was able to knock off Kansas in the Big 12 tournament was that Brady Heslip got free enough to hit 4-of-6 threes. On Monday night, whoever guarded Heslip — either Travis Releford or McLemore — stayed glued to him, and KU did such a good job limiting Jackson’s penetration that there was no need to help off Heslip, who attempted only three shots and did not score.
KU also held Cory Jefferson, who was averaging 14 points per game, scoreless on six shoots. On Jefferson’s last attempt, he rebounded a miss and tried to hurry right back up from about eight feet out, missing badly.
The only Baylor player to have any kind of success was freshman Isaiah Austin, who needed 15 shots to get his 15 points. KU’s shorter four men muscled Austin off the block, which is where Baylor tried to get him the ball.
This was bullying to the nth degree.
As good as the Jayhawks were, they still have a few issues offensively and when they go to their bench. Another team sagged against KU’s four men and the offense wasn’t exactly brimming with efficiency. This team is beatable.
But When KU’s defense is this good, this active, this smothering, the offense will always be good enough. And that’s why so long as they have their health, they may lose a game or two, but no one is challenging the Jayhawks in the Big 12.
You’d be a fool to think otherwise.
Correction: An earlier version read that Baylor’s 0.65 points per possession were the lowest against Kansas during the Bill Self era. That is incorrect. It’s the lowest against any current Big 12 teams. KU held Nebraska to 0.59 points per possession on Feb. 17, 2007. Statsheet.com does not recognize former Big 12 teams, and who can blame them? Thanks to loyal reader Michael Gray for pointing that out.