If it's possible for the fifth-ranked team in the country to be underrated, then 24-2 Kansas is that team. Are there really four teams in the country that are better than the Jayhawks? Right now I kind of doubt it.
The evaluative challenge posed by KU is this season is a familiar one. The Jayhawks are once again an undeniably excellent team playing in an undeniably mediocre league, the Big 12 North. Feast your eyes:
Through games of February 21, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
Pace PPP PPP EM
1. Kansas 69.3 1.16 0.93 +0.23
2. Kansas St. 69.5 1.13 0.97 +0.16
3. Texas 64.5 1.11 1.03 +0.08
4. Texas A&M 63.2 1.02 1.03 -0.01
5. Texas Tech 69.2 1.00 1.01 -0.01
6. Baylor 73.0 1.06 1.07 -0.01
7. Oklahoma St. 65.2 1.01 1.03 -0.02
8. Oklahoma 64.6 1.03 1.08 -0.05
9. Missouri 72.2 1.01 1.08 -0.07
10. Iowa St. 67.7 0.90 0.99 -0.09
11. Nebraska 66.0 0.94 1.03 -0.09
12. Colorado 61.5 0.97 1.11 -0.14
Note that in terms of performance in-conference, the entire six-team Big 12 South is sandwiched in between the second-and third-best teams in the Big 12 North. The worst team in the South, Oklahoma, has clearly outperformed the third-best team in the North, Missouri. Thus we find that the worst four teams in the entire Big 12 furnish Kansas and Kansas State with fully half of their respective conference schedules.
While it's true that K-State has been mortal against this group, losing at Missouri earlier in the season and losing again at Nebraska Wednesday night, Kansas hasn't lost a game to a member of this feckless foursome in more than two calendar years. Indeed, KU has gone 16-1 against the North as a whole the past two seasons, their only loss coming in Manhattan this year on January 30.
When extolling the virtues of Kansas, then, we have to be careful to take into account the fact that they're playing games against teams like Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa State. Even so, what's impressive about this year's Jayhawks is not only the extremity of their statistical dominance (they're outscoring conference opponents by almost a quarter of a point per possession) but also the sheer number of ways in which they're able to inflict their will.
Kansas has long played outstanding defense. This year they're doing it largely without taking the ball away from their opponents. While Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson are still recording a goodly number of steals, KU's conference opponents are actually turning the ball over much less often than they did in 2007. The net effect of this change, however, has merely been to reclassify the Kansas D: no longer "insane," it is now merely "outstanding." The Jayhawks still force misses, both from outside and in the paint, and they still clean up the defensive glass. More importantly, the slight decline in the defense has been offset by an improved offense.
The largest single difference between this Jayhawk team and those of the recent past is that this year Kansas is taking excellent care of the ball. In Big 12 games this season, the Jayhawks have committed a turnover on fewer than 18 percent of their possessions. This has enabled them to weather a severe decline in their three-point accuracy since last year, and indeed to put an offense on the floor that's even better than what fans in Lawrence saw in 2007. Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur share this much in common with Kevin Durant: while other players (Darnell Jackson, for one) make a higher percentage of their shots, Rush and Arthur take on the lion's share of their offense's possessions without turning the ball over.
In recent years the modus operandi of dominant teams like North Carolina in 2005 and Florida in 2006 and 2007 has been not to sweat the turnovers. The Tar Heels and the Gators in those years weren't careless with the ball, mind you, but they certainly were nowhere near the top of their conferences in terms of fewest turnovers. They didn't need to be. Still, for a while now part of me has wondered what might happen if a team came along that combined NBA-level talent with a minimum of turnovers. (Illinois in 2005 was probably the nearest approximation of this ideal.) Kansas this year may be giving that notion a try.
Given all of the above, why aren't we hearing more about this team? Probably because of Bill Self's personal 0-4 record in Elite Eight games. It's remarkable to me that in an era when we've seen the Boston Red Sox win not just one but two World Series, when we've seen Eli Manning (Eli Manning!) beat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl, and when we've seen former longtime bridesmaids like Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim win it all, it can still be seriously contended that there's some kind of intractable barrier preventing Bill Self from reaching the Final Four. Personally I think Self reaching the Final Four is a matter of when, not if.
From time to time, a member of the college hoops media's print fraternity will bemoan the fact that their electronic brethren, many of whom are former coaches, will rarely question the choices made by any current coach. That's fair. Witness, for example, the odd juxtaposition offered from courtside during Tuesday night's Purdue/Indiana game, when Kelvin Sampson's situation was, I am not making this up, compared to the Duke lacrosse case. It's true that Sampson disputes the charge that he misled investigators. Even Sampson, however, doesn't dispute what Indiana itself reported to the NCAA last October. This is a "rush to judgment"?
What I find ironic, though, is how often these same print pundits will themselves unconsciously echo a premise that one hears promulgated from the sidelines during any televised game, namely the alleged omnipotence of the coach. To oversimplify, on TV any team's triumph is said to be the doing of the coach. In print, any team's defeat is made to be the undoing of the coach.
Last year, for example, Kansas lost in the Elite Eight to UCLA. You can view this as further proof of Self's inability to get to the Final Four. Many did. For my part, however, I viewed it more as an instance of lamentable seeding. That these two teams should have been playing each other anywhere before the Final Four was due solely and exclusively to the fact that the Bruins lost to lowly Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament. Them's the breaks.
Maybe this is the year the breaks go their way and Kansas gets to the Final Four. Then again, maybe they'll lose on the first weekend. Maybe they'll even lose tomorrow at Oklahoma State. There's no way of knowing. One thing I do know, even in murky February. I'm keeping an eye on the Jayhawks.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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