Identifying the deeper issues with the Jayhawks

Let’s start with the simple explanation for why the Jayhawks are losing and then let’s begin to put that narrative to bed.

Elijah Johnson is playing bad basketball at the point guard position. Johnson has 42 turnovers in the last 11 games. He’s shooting 29.8 percent in Big 12 play. At this point, Johnson could accidentally tie his shoes together and KU fans would probably nod like they saw it coming.

Yes, Johnson’s point guard play is an issue. A big, fat issue. But putting this all on Johnson is not fair. Expecting Johnson to make this all right is probably not fair either.

Johnson needs help. And that’s where the issues that are currently haunting the Jayhawks begin.

Kansas lacks a secondary ball-handler

Aaron Miles had Keith Langford. Russell Robinson had Mario Chalmers. Sherron Collins had Tyshawn Taylor. Tyshawn Taylor had Brady Morningstar and then he had Elijah Johnson.

Johnson has…

No one.

Self has never really had a true point guard since Miles left campus. He prefers combo guards, and he prefers two of them.

This year is the first since 2005 that we’ve seen Kansas play with a true two-guard in Ben McLemore. The 2005 team played J.R. Giddens at the two, but Langford had the ability to bring the ball up or was capable of handling it late in the shot clock.

If you’re picking a secondary ball-handler in this team’s starting lineup, it’s Travis Releford. And that’s a problem.

Let’s compare Releford’s assist rate to the secondary ball-handlers on Self’s last seven teams.

Year

Secondary ball-handler

Assist rate

2005-06

Mario Chalmers

27.0

2006-07

Mario Chalmers

19.4

2007-08

Mario Chalmers

24.5

2008-09

Tyshawn Taylor

20.6

2009-10

Tyshawn Taylor

24.1

2010-11

Brady Morningstar

19.0

2011-12

Elijah Johnson

20.4

2012-13

Travis Releford

15.5

 

Releford is an excellent offensive threat in transition. He has made himself a serviceable outside shooter. He also has improved his half-court game as a scorer, but he’s not a creator and he’s not a ball-handler.

Now, let’s compare Johnson’s assist and turnover rate this season to last season.

Year

Assist rate

Turnover rate

2011-12

20.4

19.2

2012-13

28.0

27.8

 

Johnson’s turnover rate is worst than any starting point guard Self has coached at KU. The next-worst was Robinson in 2008, but he had a better secondary ball-handler than any other KU team. KU also had another starting-caliber point guard coming off the bench in Collins.

I’ve been against putting Naadir Tharpe in the starting lineup in Johnson’s place because I feel like Tharpe is a liability on the defensive end. But playing Tharpe more minutes might be the only solution.

Tharpe has a respectable turnover rate (19.9) and he’s the one KU player right now who doesn’t appear to have the confidence of a pimply-faced teenager approaching a knockout cheerleader. And I wouldn’t put Tharpe in Johnson’s place. I would play them together, giving KU two ball-handlers.

In the last two games with the two of them playing together, KU played to a 36-all tie with TCU and outscored OU 31-25.

The Jayhawks are not as good defensively with Tharpe. His shot selection can be questionable. But the Jayhawks might need him and Johnson together to get out of this funk.

Eliminating the Withey effect

Pulling Jeff Withey away from the basket with a big man who can shoot outside or forcing Withey to defend a pick-and-roll is not a new strategy.

The Big 12 is just getting better at it.

Withey has seven blocks in the last three games, which is not all that alarming, but Withey’s effect on shooting percentages has diminished. In the last three games, opponents shot 47.3 percent inside the arc.

In the first 20 games, opponents made an NCAA-low 37.2 percent of their twos.

This has also had an effect on KU’s offense. Turning Withey blocks into offense — particularly fast breaks — has led to some easy opportunities for KU the last two years.

This season KU is getting back 75.3 percent of Withey’s blocks (70 out of 93) and scoring 1.43 points per possession* on those possessions that follow a Withey block.

In the first 20 games, KU scored 4.6 points per game off Withey’s blocks. The last three games Withey’s blocks have produced only eight points.

*One of those possessions was at the end of the West Virginia game when KU ran out the clock. If you take out that possession, KU is scoring 1.45 points per possession produced by a Withey block.

KU’s fast-break opportunities have dropped as well. The Jayhawks averaged 10.5 points per game off fast breaks in the first 20 games. They scored six fast-break points against Oklahoma State and have been shutout in transition the last two games.

This could be associated to eliminating Withey’s effect as well. Not only do his blocks lead to offense, teams are taking fewer awkward shots in the lane that also often lead to transition opportunities for KU.

Time to get gimmicky

Roll the ball out, we’ll run our stuff, we’ll play our defense and we’ll beat your butt.

That’s been the KU strategy for years. Self will make a few game-to-game adjustments, but mostly his system was good enough to get the job done.

If you want to talk about something that was alarming on Saturday at Oklahoma, it was that it wasn’t necessarily what KU did that led to a loss. The Sooners looked like the team that should win. Their talent looked better than KU’s talent. Their execution was better than KU’s execution.

This forced Self to get gimmicky by going to the triangle-and-two, which forces non-shooters into shooting. It worked for a bit, then the Sooners made some shots.

For the Jayhawks to get out of this rut, Self is going to need to get even more creative. He doesn’t like to play zone, but he might have to play zone. He needs to find a way to keep Withey in the paint on defense. He can try that with the triangle-and-two, but against teams that can put five shooters on the floor (such as Iowa State), that’s not going to work.

A zone keeps Withey in the paint and can also hide Tharpe.

The Jayhawks also have to get McLemore better looks. He can only create so much for himself. Johnson’s strength is not creating. Neither is Tharpe’s. McLemore gets his looks through great execution or great sets. Self needs to get creative here as well. Running his chop play at the end of games over and over again isn’t working any miracles lately.

Lastly, the Jayhawks have confidence issues. They’re self-doubters. They’re scared to mess up. They almost seem scared to succeed. Psychologists should be lining up outside the Fieldhouse to study this team.

Those issues come down to the fact that the blueprint to beat KU is out there. It has worked three straight games. It has dethroned the champs.

Now it’s up to Self to figure out the blueprint to counteract that blueprint.

About The Author

C.J. Moore is the Lead College Basketball Writer at Bleacher Report. He is a University of Kansas grad and a basketball nerd. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

1 Comment

  1. Kris Nelson says:

    I was thinking to myself after the Okie State game, this team needs to start Tharpe with Johnson and maybe Young off the bench. Well, I got half of that from self in the TCU debacle. There has been a serious lack of confidence in the leaders on this team for some time and I think Naadir sees that and that is why we have seen him come into games and start throwing up shots. He’s trying a little too hard to fill the confidence gap. I hope it isn’t too late for any changes that take place to have a positive effect on this season’s outcome. There have been very good teams in the past who have had rough patches and come through them on the other side a stronger more resilient team. However, the clear lack o confidence KU has exhibited the past few games is far more worrisome to me than anything else I have witnessed on the court. I can take turnovers, poor shooting, etc. those can be made up for by hustle and sheer determination to improve. Lacking confidence is something for which there is no quick cure outside of winning games and KU has not done that comfortably so in over a month, save for perhaps the Baylor game.