On the morning of December 20, Kansas awoke to news stories saying their team had a problem. The Jayhawks had been defeated by Davidson the previous night by the score of 80-74 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The loss dropped Bill Self's team to 7-3, and that week KU fell all the way to No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
Since that bleak morning, however, the prospects for this team have brightened considerably. Kansas has won seven straight games heading into tonight's showdown with undefeated Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. What changed?
My theory is as follows: not a whole lot. Kansas had a bad game against Davidson, after losing games on neutral floors to Kentucky and Duke. Bad games happen for even the best teams, and there's not a lot of shame in losing to the Wildcats or the Blue Devils. This is not the deepest or most talented KU team in Self's tenure, but they're achieving results that are beginning to look awfully familiar -- and for that Self deserves a lot of credit. Let's take a look at this current group of Jayhawks on the cusp of their biggest game of the year.
KU's depth is a concern...relatively speaking.
Self has said that an alleged lack of depth this season has changed the way he substitutes. "Depth isn't great because of injuries, and depth isn't great because of foul problems," he said in the wake of the Davidson loss. "Depth is great when guys aren't playing well other guys can play ....We just don't have guys yet that can come in and we don't skip a beat."
Certainly the days of relegating a McDonald's All-American to the far end of the bench, as Self sat Cole Aldrich in 2007-08, are long gone. If Self had a freshman-year version of Aldrich today, that player would definitely be earning minutes. For that matter a talent like Thomas Robinson was limited to just 15 minutes a game as recently as last year.
What's interesting, though, is that Self has actually kept his substitution patterns more or less the same -- he just complains more about the guys he's putting in the game. This season 74 percent of the available playing time has been logged by the Jayhawks' top five players in terms of minutes played. That's the exact same percentage seen from the Aldrich-Sherron Collins Kansas team that reached the 2009 Sweet 16. More to the point, it's a very normal percentage. Syracuse is synonymous with phenomenal depth this year, and the Orange give 62 percent of the available minutes to their top five players. Providence is notorious for leaving players on the floor until they collapse from exhaustion, and the Friars are giving 81 percent of the playing time to their top five.
Kansas may look different this year, but they're arguably the same as a "normal" top-10 team. Robinson's projected as a 2012 lottery pick; Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson are envisioned as potential second-rounders. In Lawrence that qualifies as a down year talent-wise, sure, but you might remember Duke won a national championship in 2010 without putting a single player into the first or even second round of the ensuing NBA draft. KU may well find that they're talented enough for the tasks at hand this season.
The Jayhawks are getting it done with defense.
Since that Davidson loss, no Kansas opponent has managed to score one point per possession against this defense, and in four Big 12 games the Jayhawks have allowed just 229 points in 271 possessions. If you're thinking a defense that holds conference opponents to just 0.84 points per trip is pretty good, you're right. Opposing teams in calendar 2012 have simply been unable to make shots against this D, from either side of the arc. And once that shot comes off the rim, Kansas just happens to have perhaps the nation's finest defensive rebounder at their disposal in the person of Robinson. The 6-10 junior has pulled down 32 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes this season.
Underestimate Jeff Withey at your peril.
If there's a poster child for these 2011-12 Kansas Jayhawks, it's Jeff Withey. The 7-0 junior isn't what you'd call poetry in motion, and your eyes may tell you he's the sort of player who wouldn't be getting as many minutes if only Aldrich or a Morris twin were still around.
Well, look again. Withey may not get his own line of shoes named after him, but if he can sustain his current level of performance he'll go down as perhaps the best shot-blocker Self's ever had in Lawrence. This season Withey's blocked 16 percent of the twos that opponents have attempted during his minutes, a higher mark than even Anthony Davis can claim at Kentucky. Withey is hardly the sum total of the Kansas defense, of course, but he's surely one reason why Big 12 opponents have made just 38 percent of their twos against the Jayhawks.
Nor can opponents necessarily count on getting Withey into foul trouble. The seven-footer drew plenty of whistles at the start of the season, and indeed at the Maui Invitational on November 21 he managed to foul out against Georgetown in just 13 minutes. But since that time the big guy's apparently learned how to elude the officials' detection. Withey hasn't drawn his fourth foul in a game since KU's 68-61 loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational title game on November 23. In Big 12 action he's been on the floor for 154 defensive possessions and recorded 10 fouls. That's still a robust foul rate, to be sure, but it's one that Self can at least work around.
Turnovers may not be a big problem after all.
Coaches are never happy unless they're unhappy about something, of course, and the particular form of Self's unhappiness this season was supposed to be turnovers. At the start of December the KU coach went so far as to say he was burdened with "probably the poorest ball-handling backcourt of anyone in the country when you talk about assist-to-turnover ratio." Taylor in particular was proving to be turnover-prone, and KU fans even took to referring to "good Tyshawn and bad Tyshawn."
Self had a point. The Jayhawks' turnover rate for the season as a whole is a little high. Then again it's not as high as Baylor's, and no one seems terribly concerned about the Bears in that respect. Not to mention the Jayhawks seem to be getting on top of this issue. In four Big 12 games Kansas has given the ball away on just 18 percent of their possessions -- this despite the fact that Taylor individually has continued to commit turnovers at a high rate (18 giveaways in 227 in-conference offensive possessions). Self can and will continue to fret about Taylor, but if the rest of his team keeps this up the net result will be well within the range of what past KU teams have done.
With less talent on hand and a smaller but tougher Big 12 as the competition, Kansas was expected to take a step back this season, even if it was just a small one. But the Jayhawks may have other plans. For seven straight seasons KU has won at least a share of the regular-season conference title. After watching this team play its first 17 games, I've come to the conclusion that the streak will continue for an eighth season in the new-look Big 12. You heard it here first.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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