One common thread in KU's losses that has nothing to do with defense
The KU defense — and its reputation — took a beating over the last week.
Some fans have gone as far as to long for the days of last season, lest we all forget that team was, at times, so poor on that end it prompted several rants from coach Bill Self.
After a game against TCU last season, Self proclaimed, “We don’t guard,” three times within the same answer. After a game against K-State, in which KU allowed 88 points and nearly gave up a game-winner on a blown switch, Self took it a step further.
“We’ve had stretches where we didn’t guard very well other times during our tenure here over 13 years, but we’ve never had a team this poor on that end,” Self said. “I mean this is without question probably — not probably — it is the poorest defensive team that we’ve ever had.
“It took us a while to get this poor. You just don’t get this bad overnight, defensively,”
So assuming KU’s defense right now is somewhere in between “the poorest defensive team” KU has had and actually fairly OK given it held its first eight opponents to 74 or fewer points and is only playing with seven scholarship players at the moment, it probably isn’t the worst idea to look all over the box score to find out why the last two games went the way they did.
One number jumps out in that regard.
Points off turnovers:
- Dec. 6, 2017: Washington 16, KU 8
- Dec. 10, 2017: Arizona State 25, KU 9
Compared with some of KU’s other wins, those margins are cause for concern.
In the gut-it-out win over Kentucky, 65-61, KU tabbed 17 points off 18 Kentucky turnovers. In the game against Syracuse, where Devonte’ Graham’s 35 points and seven 3-pointers led KU to a 16-point win, KU forced 17 turnovers and tabbed 16 points.
Doing some quick math, you can put KU down for about one point off each turnover per game. That makes sense, considering some turnovers result in easy runouts and others, like charges or passes that fall out-of-bounds, let the defense reset and are harder to score after.
In trying to separate those out, one category that helps is “fastbreak points.” I’d caution against gleaning too much from that statistic by itself, considering the definition of what is and isn’t a fastbreak is entirely arbitrary. But in context, it’s a pretty solid way to break things down.
Against Washington, KU forced 12 turnovers. Off those 12 turnovers, KU scored eight points. Only three of those were on fastbreaks. Let's dive a little deeper.
KU tabbed six steals against Washington, likely the best chances for easy fastbreak buckets. The first was with just a few seconds left in the first half when Marcus Garrett single handedly blew up the Huskies’ play.
That play shouldn’t have produced any KU points so we can remove it.
The second-to-last steal was actually a jump ball and the last came in a 14-point game with less than a minute left, so those probably aren’t ones to dwell on. The remaining three, however, showcase a bit of a problem.
First, with 18:55 to play in the first half, Graham deflected a pass to start a fastbreak. Malik Newman came up with the ball and had Graham open for a split second, but instead held onto it and drove.
Graham, with nowhere to go, backtracked to the 3-point line. Newman put up a shot in traffic and was swatted at the rim.
“I think if (Newman) would just worry about things that have an impact on us winning or not, I think he’d be better off,” Self said after that game. “Missed Devonte’ a couple times wide open in transition.”
The next instance was the opposite case of that, by all accounts.
With 12-and-a-half minutes left in the second half, Mykhailiuk knocked a ball away and Graham dove on the floor to get it. He bounced it back to Mykhailiuk, who pushed it up the floor.
Multiple Washington players stared at the ball on the play and made no attempt to get back on defense. That left Lagerald Vick running wide open to the hoop, but Mykhailiuk’s pass was off the mark and flew into the stands.
Vick took the blame for the play, patting his chest, but it wasn’t at all his fault.
As for steal No. 3, it came with just over two minutes to play and the Jayhawks desperately trying to make the comeback.
Garrett poked the ball away into the hands of Vick, who tried to pitch it ahead to Newman.
Vick's pass traveled too far down the court. Garrett was actually credited for the turnover on the play, likely due to an error by the scorekeepers, but it was another opportunity KU couldn’t afford to waste.
Now the Arizona State game was somewhat different. KU actually made the right play a few times early on.
The first instance was in fact so well executed that it’s worth watching the entire sequence.
KU’s defense — yes, that defense — first did an impeccable job swarming to the ball and helping and switching when necessary. Arizona State couldn't get anything going and the result was a turnover, as Graham easily intercepted a pass along the baseline.
Graham started the break, taking three dribbles and firing the ball up the court to Mykhailiuk. Mykhailiuk dropped it backward for Newman, who drilled the 3-pointer in rhythm.
KU took a 10-2 lead. Arizona State called timeout.
Every opportunity didn’t go that smoothly.
With 14-and-a-half minutes to play in the first and the Sun Devils on an 8-0 run, Newman poked a ball away and Graham recovered it to start a break. KU didn’t have numbers, so a basket was no guarantee, but Vick and Mykhailiuk essentially ended the opportunity by running to the exact same spot on the floor.
Graham passed the ball up the court, but Vick had to slow down to keep from colliding with Mykhailiuk. The KU offense had to reset.
Instead of an easy bucket, KU settled for a Vick floater in traffic on the possession. The shot was swatted away, marking the fourth of six straight scoreless KU possessions.
That was a theme of the day.
The next steal came at the rim, so KU didn’t really have numbers. Even if they did, Graham was slow getting down the floor so KU couldn’t capitalize on a quick 5-on-4 break to create a mismatch somewhere.
That was less true on the next chance, as Newman poked a ball away and Mykhailiuk recovered it and dribbled into the frontcourt.
Udoka Azubuike put his hand up for the ball in the paint. Mykhailiuk didn’t pass and instead spun around at the top of the key.
On the wing, Arizona State’s Remy Martin saw Mykhailiuk dribbling and abandoned Graham, his original assignment. Mykhailiuk could’ve passed Graham the ball, only Martin was quick enough to poke it away.
KU should’ve ended up with an easy layup or 3-pointer. Instead it went down as a turnover.
“They said every time Svi has the ball to crowd him, try to take his ball,” Self said. “His ball handling was very, very weak today.”
Perhaps the worst mishap of either game, though, wasn’t off a steal. It may have been a player trying to atone for a mistake the game before.
With less than five minutes left, Newman grabbed a rebound off an Arizona State miss. He dribbled up the court and tried a 50-foot pass to Graham, but there was no real lane to do so.
After the game, Graham said the idea for the pass was OK, the execution was just lacking. Self’s description, coming in an unrelated answer, was a little less forgiving.
“(A) terrible, bone-head, full court pass that went out of bounds,” Self said.
By themselves, those opportunities weren’t what caused the two losses.
While KU only scored 65 against Washington, the offense was far more free flowing against a team that played exclusively man-to-man defense in Allen Fieldhouse
“You score 85 at home,” Self said. “You expect to win.”
And that’s certainly true. But KU can still do more a lot on that end.
Against Washington, the easiest way for KU to score against the adjusted zone would’ve been to avoid it all together — simply running down the floor before it could set up.
And against Arizona State, even if both teams wanted to run, the Jayhawks still could’ve done more of it on their own terms to break through dry spells and make things more difficult for the competition.
“It just unbelievable,” Self said. “Whenever you control tempo and control pace, the basket grows, and it shrinks on the other end.”
In the last two games, that’s one thing KU certainly hasn’t done. You can't forget about the other side of it, either.
The Jayhawks have allowed 41 points off 29 turnovers in the last two games, a rate (1.41 points per possession) far higher than the clip they've scored at. They've also been outscored in transition, 24-13, despite being a team that should be built to get out and run, even off misses and long rebounds.
Again it was Self, speaking to a different topic, who said it best.
"There's not that dog or competitive juice," Self said, "that guys need to have when the game's on the line."