Bill Self’s Backup: I’m starting to believe in this team

By: Chris O’Brien 

I’ve reached a dangerous point in the season. I call it the point of no return. The moment when I start to believe this year’s team could win it all.

And I’m not just talking about the Big 12…

Now, it’s worth noting this moment happens pretty much every year. It’s part Bill Self’s coaching, part my overconfidence. Most years, the point of no return happens a lot earlier in the season. Last year it was early November, game two, right when Frank Mason hit that buzzer beater over Duke.

This year it took 22 games. It’s always a scary moment because with higher expectations comes a greater chance of disappointment. I’ve raised the ceiling from Big 12 Title and maybe a run to the Elite 8 to Final Four hopes.

Why?

Because our weaknesses are beginning to shrink.

This team’s not big enough 

What better team to evaluate this flaw against than Texas A&M. The Aggies have two monsters, Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, both a big 6’10”. Texas A&M ended up winning the rebounding battle (40-33) but the offensive board category was pretty competitive (14-10).

Of the top five contenders right now (Villanova, Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Purdue), I wanted no part of seeing Duke, Michigan State, or Purdue because of their frontcourts. Two months ago, the idea of Doke picking up two fouls in the first five minutes and sending Lightfoot out there or Clay Young looked like a recipe for some violent dunks and a bunch of posters for those schools’ campus bookstores.

But Lightfoot is improving every single game. He looks like he’s getting a little bit bigger too (shoutout Hudy!). He’s starting to remind me a little bit of a young Cole Aldrich. We can now count on Lightfoot for 12 minutes of smart basketball, sets good screens on offense, takes a bunch of charges on defense, good amount of rebounds, sneaky amount of blocks.

And then De Sousa hasn’t been the savior of the frontcourt, but let’s not shortchange the impact of sending him in vs. a walk-on or a member of the football team. Plus he’s still so new to the system. He’s got another month-and-a-half of practices, some more workouts with Hudy. He’s banging against Doke, Lightfoot, and the Lawson brothers in practice, he has at least 10 more games, he’ll keep improving. Remember, with Lightfoot’s improvement, the bar for De Sousa is really just giving the Jayhawks starter level intensity for six minutes a night.

This team doesn’t get to the free throw line

Only 11 attempts against Texas A&M but then 26 against Kansas State. We’re still not great at it, according to this site we rank Number 324 out of 351.

Yeah, there’s not much of a positive spin I can do here. My only argument is basically, “See, at least we’re not last anymore!”

But here’s something that caught my eye, look at Virginia all the way down at 347 on that list. So it’s not a fatal flaw, because Virginia is nearly undefeated and well on their way to a No. 1 seed. A team like Virginia is so strong on defense, they don’t turn the ball over, they’ve got a lot of depth, you can live with having one category that close to the bottom.

This team doesn’t defend 

No. 136 in scoring defense is never where Bill Self wants his team to be.

But holding Kansas State to 56, West Virginia, Baylor, and Texas A&M all under 70. Oklahoma got 85 but the Sooners are literally the highest scoring team in the country.

The last five games, KU’s scoring defense is at 68.4 ppg. That mark would put them in the Top 80 and for reference, it’s not far off from a seemingly elite defensive team like West Virginia (66.6 ppg).

All the good stuff

We’re No. 7 in the AP poll. No. 8 in KenPom. A top the Big 12. It’s not crazy to start thinking about this team as a Final Four contender.

We’ve spent time with the weaknessess, now let’s look at the strengths.

Devonte Graham is scoring 17.2 ppg and is seventh in the country in assists per game with 7.5.

Svi is averaging 23.3 ppg over the last three games, he’s knocking down everything. 15 threes in those three games.

Doke is a dominant force. The 13.5 ppg and 7.4 rpg line is more impressive when you consider he doesn’t even average 25 minutes a game. The free throw shooting is a problem (although he did hit those two in a row at Kansas State!), but we saw against the Wildcats that KU can just keep Lightfoot out there at the end if need be.

Malik Newman has been playing at the level we thought he was going to be coming into the season. 18 ppg over the last four games and an impressive 37.2 minutes per game during that stretch. The offense is there, he’s got a great first step, taking it to the basket but he’s looking good on defense too. Against Kansas State, Newman pulled down 10 rebounds and in the last five games he’s quietly averaging 7 rebounds per game.

Still need more consistency out of Vick, but some positive signs with 11 points against Kansas State and 10 against Texas A&M. At the beginning of the season, it was Graham/Svi/Vick as the three-headed perimeter monster. Now it appears to be Graham/Svi/Newman. It may be that Vick just needs to combine with Garrett and Cunliffe to give Kansas 40 minutes a night of solid defense and a total of 15 ppg.

Back to that list of the top five contenders. Michigan State and Duke have physical frontcourts and a wealth of NBA talent. Purdue is the biggest team in the country. Virginia the best defensive team in the country. Villanova is kind of great at everything and has the best 1-2 punch on the perimeter with Brunson and Bridges.

We don’t have a “best in the country at” category but we are near the top with three-point shooting.

I’m starting to believe in this team because we have gone from the team that only does one thing really well to a team that does a lot of other things well and our weaknesses seem to shrink each game.

Dangit, I’m starting to think we have a chance…

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