LAWRENCE, Kan. — This was a reminder that Kansas should not be counted out of any national title or Big 12 races. The Jayhawks still have Bill Self game-planning, and now that Johnny Furphy has arrived, they’ve got one of the best starting lineups in college basketball.
Houston arrived on Saturday with a defense that was on pace to be one of the best this century. The Cougars left Allen Fieldhouse with a 78-65 loss and work to do to get back to historically great.
Just like the Connecticut game earlier this season when Self had a defensive game plan to disrupt the Huskies’ offensive flow — and a team capable of executing it — Self gave his players the blueprint to beat a vaunted unit, and his players again proved they’re equipped for just about anything.
When playing Houston, you better have a plan for going against its ball-screen defense and what to do against its post Monster, which is when the Cougars bring a hard double-team in the post.
“We thought the best way to attack them was to use all 50 feet wide and 47 feet long,” Self said, “then hopefully be able to play behind their aggressiveness.”
Against the post doubles, Self told Hunter Dickinson to post up further from the basket early in the game, so that when he passed out of it, the Cougars would have to cover more ground to recover.
Most teams do not have a center who can pull this off. Most big men are just trying to get the ball out of their hands and not turn it over. Dickinson’s ability to see over the trap and deliver pinpoint passes generated great looks for the Jayhawks.
“He was great out of it,” Self said.
Dickinson generated a shot for a teammate four times against a Houston double-team; Kansas made three of those four shots. The Jayhawks have a 68.3 effective field-goal percentage for the season on shots that come as a result of a post double against Dickinson, per Synergy.
“He is so good,” Self said as he left his press conference and was asked about the strategy he could employ because of Dickinson. “He is so good.”
When other teams set a ball screen with their big against Houston, most guards are just trying to survive the blitz, getting the ball out of their hands before Houston takes it and hoping the ball goes to a teammate and not a Cougar. Kansas never looked panicked. The Jayhawks got rid of the ball before Houston could apply its pressure, then had advantages behind.
“I thought we stretched the floor,” Self said. “Whenever you’re trapping and the other three guys can cover a minimal distance, it’s easier to guard.”
But when it’s three against four, it’s a lot easier. And this works when you have big men like Dickinson and KJ Adams who can make quick reads when put in those advantage situations. The two KU bigs combined for 11 assists, and their passing was a big reason why Kansas shot 68.9 percent from the field.
A month ago, Houston could have shrunk the floor by cheating off the Jayhawks’ non-shooters. Now teams must account for Furphy, who made 6-of-7 shots on his way to 17 points. Furphy is averaging 15.7 points over his last six games with an effective field-goal percentage of 81.3. (That’s 1.625 points per shot.)
“He’s a real guy,” Self said. “He’s getting better all the time, and certainly he looked like he belonged out there today and in a situation that he’s never been in.”
You could almost see Self’s chest puff out as he said it, knowing that the development of Furphy could be what changes this team’s trajectory and how it’ll finish.
This season has not played out ideally for Kansas, which was preseason No. 1 but has lost some stinkers at West Virginia and Central Florida. But in some of their biggest games — Kentucky, Tennessee, Connecticut and Houston — the Jayhawks have played their best.
When Self was asked about that, the wheels started turning as he processed what it is about this group in big games.
“You look at our five starters; they’re pretty good,” Self said.
That’s a new spin, because for the first few months of the season, the narrative he pushed was how good his Big Four were.
“Maybe those five guys — primarily those five —can get up for something sporadically that it’s hard for them to do consistently,” Self said. “And maybe that’s experience. Maybe it’s (being) older. Maybe fatigue. I don’t know exactly. But we’ve shown that when we play well, we can play with anybody.
“And then we’ve also shown that when we’re not very good, obviously we can be had. And there’s way too much inconsistency with that margin.”
Self said it’d be nice if these Jayhawks were steady. Most of his teams are, and it’s why he has more rings than fingers and toes. But with Furphy going now, the Jayhawks have been able to hit the reset button.
Maybe these Jayhawks can be steady. They’ve got a month before the postseason to prove that. And if they get there, then maybe we’ll see that everyone had it right when it came to preseason No. 1.
Because this performance? Against that defense? It was as impressive as anything anyone has done in college basketball this season. Maybe an asterisk belongs there because it was at Allen Fieldhouse. And KU’s bench, while it performed well on Saturday, is still a concern.
But Self now has the weapons that make him feel he’s got a chance in any game, and no one is better at putting great pieces in the right spots.
(Photo of Kevin McCullar Jr. dunking and Johnny Furphy looking on: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)