Bill Self: KU basketball must get bigger, longer, more athletic to contend nationally
Run out of the gym in what was perhaps his final collegiate contest, Marcus Garrett wore the pain of that reality on his face in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s season-ending outcome.
Still, in what was only a three-minute postgame news conference following Kansas basketball’s historic 85-51 defeat to USC in a Round of 32 matchup at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Garrett made time to express his belief that the problems the Jayhawks encountered so often this season aren’t unfixable.
“For this team next year, they have a chance to do something special,” Garrett said. “Every year I feel like a Kansas team with Coach (Bill) Self has a chance to do something special.”
As Self would be the first to admit, though, KU has plenty of work ahead of itself.
The 34-point spread in the loss to the six-seeded Trojans represented the largest margin for defeat for the Jayhawks in the blue-blood program’s decorated history in the NCAA Tournament. Couple that with another record-setting setback, the team’s 84-59 defeat to Texas on Jan. 2 that tied the mark for its worst-ever defeat inside Allen Fieldhouse, and a common theme emerges: KU simply couldn’t hang when it went up against opponents with size, length and athleticism.
Recruiting and player development can go a long way toward closing that gap, Self said, though the head coach who just completed his 18th season in Lawrence acknowledged what was likely on many Jayhawk fans’ minds in the wake of what in many ways became a piece-it-together campaign.
“For us to be a team that really has a chance to be a national contender, I mean, we need to get a little bit more athletic, we do. And we need to get a little longer and bigger and those sorts of things,” Self said Monday. “I thought our guys for the most part played pretty well and maximized their individual abilities pretty well this year, but tonight the length definitely mattered.”
Few would mistake this group for one of Self's most capable in those three categories.
David McCormack different player than Udoka Azubuike
David McCormack, the team’s 6-foot-10, 250-pound starting forward, put together a junior effort that earned him honors as the Big 12’s most improved player, but athleticism has never been his calling card — McCormack missed a handful of the few dunks he attempted this season, including a memorable wide-open clank in an eventual 75-72 overtime defeat to the Longhorns on Feb. 23 in Austin, Texas. One year after last season’s Udoka Azubuike-led squad finished third nationally with 14% of its 2-point tries coming on dunks, the 2020-21 group stands 122nd with a 5.7% share.
KU's 77.8% conversion rate on its dunk attempts, meanwhile, ranks 313th out of 347 eligible programs. The Jayhawks are 49 of 63 in those tries, according to analytics outlet barttorvik.com.
Of course, a team’s athleticism — or lack thereof — is reflected in more than just its ability to dunk. So what about shot blocking? KU averages four rejections per game, tying it for 63rd nationally with the likes of Texas Tech, Arizona, Wisconsin and St. Bonaventure. Azubuike alone averaged 2.6 blocks per contest across his dominant senior season.
Ochai Agbaji, Tyon Grant-Foster unable to showcase explosiveness
Among current Jayhawks, guards Ochai Agbaji and Tyon Grant-Foster are widely regarded as the team’s best athletes, but neither really found themselves in situations to use that ability to their advantage.
Agbaji, a junior, finished with a team-high 207 3-point attempts — 54 more than Christian Braun's second-highest mark — and rarely showcased the kind of explosiveness inside the arc that he had while bursting onto the scene as a freshman midway through the 2018-19 campaign.
Grant-Foster, a junior and first-year Jayhawk by way of Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, never really found his groove in his first go-round with KU, averaging just 8.1 minutes and seeing his role drastically diminished beginning in early February.
KU notched two blocked shots and never dunked in its loss to USC, which recorded four blocks, four dunks and went 10 for 17 from beyond the arc. It at times seemed as if 7-footer and likely NBA Draft lottery pick Evan Mobley (10 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocked shots), brother Isaiah (17 points, 8 rebounds, 1 blocked shot and a 4-for-5 shooting clip on 3-point attempts) and the Trojans were simply toying with the overmatched Jayhawks, whose last four NCAA Tournament defeats have come by an average margin of 19.5 points.
“I would never say this to our team, but I wouldn’t have been disappointed if Drake had won the game (Saturday against USC),” Self said. “Not because Drake’s not good; just because it’s hard for us to match up with length and athletic ability (of USC). That’s been the downfall of our team all year long. I think that was probably as evident tonight as it has been in a long time.”
KU converted just 18 of 62 shot attempts in Monday’s drubbing. USC, on the other hand, hit on 57.1% of its field goal tries, connecting at a 61.5% clip in a second half that started with the Jayhawks already down 19.
“I think that there was less margin for error on this team probably than any team we’ve had since I’ve coached here. I think our guys maximized their ability pretty well, but our margin for error was small,” Self said. “When we played in a way (offensively) where the ball stuck or we became one-on-one players or whatnot and didn’t really play together or help each other, we became very average or even poor like we were tonight.
“I think we’ve learned that there is a certain way to play, and if you play that way we can be pretty successful, but if we don’t we get average or below average really fast.”