There have been years with elite shot-blockers, and years without them. Backcourts that created steals and others that struggled to limit dribble penetration.
No matter the combination, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self has always seemed to make it work, as much of KU’s 12-year streak of Big 12 Conference titles can be attributed to the team’s defense.
The Jayhawks have ranked in the top 10 nationally nine times out of the last 12 seasons, according to Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency numbers, and they’ve also have not finished a season worse than 21st during those 12 seasons.
So what has contributed to Kansas’ long-lasting defensive success?
It’s a good question for those who follow Self most closely — the six returning Big 12 coaches who have seen first-hand just how difficult it can be to score against the Jayhawks.
Though it was rare for any team to run ball screens 10 years ago, that’s now become the focal point of most offenses.
Start with this fact, and Kansas State coach Bruce Weber says Self’s defensive accomplishments are even more remarkable.
“He’s adjusted. I think that’s the sign of a great coach,” Weber said. “Basketball changes. You’ve got to adjust.”
Both Weber and Self came from similar defensive roots.
Weber was a longtime assistant under coach Gene Keady at Purdue. Keady, in turn, was an assistant at Arkansas in the mid-1970s under coach Eddie Sutton.
Self learned many of his defensive philosophies as an assistant for Sutton in the early ‘90s at Oklahoma State.
“We were (coaching) before the shot clock when we started. You would have possessions, 30 passes, and now you go down and guard the heck out of them and break them mentally,” Weber said. “That’s the winning basketball formula that Coach Sutton had, Coach Keady had, Coach (Larry) Brown had. I guess it just becomes part of your philosophy.”
Weber says Self has done a good job of getting Kansas’ players to execute his plan.
Though the Jayhawks don’t always have a strong rim-protector, that’s been a part of elite defenses in past years. More recently, Weber says individuals have made Kansas’ defense tough to go against.
Guard Frank Mason does a good job of getting over ball screens, which means the big men behind him don’t get in as much trouble. Last year, forward Perry Ellis could switch onto a guard, with K-State’s perimeter players struggling to get by him.
It all adds up to one truth about Kansas’ defense: It doesn’t allow many easy shots.
“If you can limit layups,” Weber said, “it’s the difference in winning and losing.”
Bringing in talented players is only step one to creating a solid defense.
Baylor coach Scott Drew has seen Self get more out of his guys once they arrive on campus.
“A lot of times young people think their way to the NBA is points and numbers,” Drew said. “To get them to be committed to be a team defender, that takes good coaching and being able to hold people accountable.”
Drew has seen Self use his team’s depth in past years to his advantage, as the coach hasn’t been afraid to sit talented players if they aren’t giving enough effort.
“The bench is a great teacher,” Drew said. “When you can put someone on the bench and win, now they’ve got to buy in, or they don’t play.”
Drew, like Weber, admires Kansas’ ability to limit easy baskets. Much of that comes from getting back in transition, though the Jayhawks are able to do that while still sending three players to the offensive glass.
Many coaches have to pick: Go for offensive rebounds and get hurt in transition, or don’t crash the offensive glass and get back on defense.
Self has been able to get the best of both by having his players hustle back defensively.
“You don’t get many in transition, and in the half-court, they’ve always got size, length and athleticism, which makes it tough to score on,” Drew said. “All that together leads to why they’ve been so successful.”
Texas coach Shaka Smart has great respect for what Self’s staff has been able to accomplish defensively at Kansas.
“They’re very detail-oriented,” Smart said. “I don’t think they get enough credit for the level of detail that they put into their defensive scheme.”
Smart saw it in his first season with Texas a year ago.
There were times in pick-and-roll situations when guard Isaiah Taylor was defended by the Jayhawks in a different way than he’d previously seen.
“They take what you’re trying to do as a team, and they don’t necessarily change their defensive style, but they really try to take away the things you do well with their defensive style,” Smart said. “They teach their guys — and I’m not on the inside of their program, so I don’t know exactly how they do it — but they teach their guys to be very intelligent defensive players.”
Smart also has seen a constant with KU’s defenders in that they always seem to have an attitude of competitiveness.
That has continued with the current roster.
“When they need to stop people, they can stop people,” Smart said. “I think with the Frank Masons and the (Devonté) Grahams and guys like that, they just have such an intensity.”
Bob Huggins, Steve Prohm, Lon Kruger
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins believes Self’s best work defensively comes from his ability to deal with egos.
“I mean, how do you get guys that are that heavily recruited, that almost got one foot out the door because they want to be pros, to play that hard, to play that well together?” Huggins said. “He does a great job. It’s so much harder than what people think it is.”
So much of playing defense, Huggins says, is about having team-first thoughts.
“People say, ‘Oh well, he’s got all these great players.’ He does,” Huggins said. “But you know what? He controls them. They play as a team. They’re unselfish. They play hard. That’s tough to do now.”
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has been impressed by KU’s defensive consistency against a tough Big 12 conference.
“They’re just so sound and so supportive of one another,” Kruger said. “They’re good individually on the ball. Their team defensive effort is very good. From all those things, you’d expect one of the best defensive teams year in and year out.”
Iowa State coach Steve Prohm, meanwhile, credits the Jayhawks’ defensive success to two keys: They’re fundamentally sound, and they’re tough. He even goes as far as to say the players “have a swagger to them” on the defensive end.
“When they need stops, they get stops, home or road,” Prohm said. “They make winning plays.”
Kansas — without an elite rim-protector — ranks seventh in Pomeroy’s defensive measure this season, meaning the Jayhawks are well on their way to keeping their defensive tradition alive.
Graham says one reason is that a defensive focus is instilled in KU players from the beginning. Self likes to often tell his guys that it’s selfish for them to shoot if they’re not going to guard, which helps them to understand the importance of competing on that end.
“He doesn’t care if we’re missing shots,” Graham said, “as long as we defend.”
So why does Self think his defenses have been successful over time?
The coach says it all comes down to a core belief — “If the other team can’t score, you can’t lose” — and one simple question.
Imagine your team is at game point: Would you rather be on offense or defense with a chance to secure the victory?
Self believes he knows how this year’s players would answer.
“I think their mind-set would say, ‘Give (the other team) the ball,’” Self said.
“At least I hope it would, because I know all our best teams in the past had that mind-set.”