Every Monday, The Eagle delves into Kansas basketball — and the week ahead. Here’s the first installment of the new series.
ATLANTA — Is it safe to expect a November grinder? Probably.
Kansas coach Bill Self and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo have made careers — and fortunes — on the defensive end, both coaches indoctrinating their players with the sort of toughness that shows up in March. Izzo has led the Spartans to six Final Fours and one NCAA title (2000) in the last 14 years. The Jayhawks are fresh off their second Final Four appearance in Self’s nine seasons in Lawrence.
On Tuesday night, the two head coaches will lead their power programs into an early-season clash in the Champions Classic at the Georgia Dome, the first bout in a doubleheader that also includes a a heavyweight matchup between Duke and Kentucky.
So what to make of the latest showdown between Sparty and Self?
Well… No. 7 Kansas is coming off a blotchy, 74-55 season-opening victory over Southeast Missouri State on Friday, while No. 14 Michigan State was nicked by UConn 66-62 on Friday night in a choppy game in a beautiful setting — Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Self may have joked last week that Michigan State practices in football pads, while his young team wants to practice with pillows. But if early trends hold, it seems likely that this game could feature the offensive execution of an SEC football game.
For Kansas, a squad with seven scholarship freshmen, it’s not a bad formula. Defenses are generally a few paces ahead of offenses in the opening weeks, and the Jayhawks have the pieces to play some of the most suffocating defense since Self arrived in Lawrence. That’s saying something, of course.
In the last seven years, dating back to the time Self’s own recruits began making up the majority of the roster in Lawrence, the Jayhawks have been in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency every season. The advanced metric, tabulated by college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy, rates defenses by how many points they allow per 100 possessions.
In the last seven years, here are KU’s adjusted efficiency rankings, according to kenpom.com:
So can this year’s Kansas defense match up to those lofty expectations? Based upon readers’ emails and the early reactions from two exhibition games and the season opener, that seems to be a pretty good question. So, let’s start here, by looking at two of Self’s best defensive teams.
To most, the gold standard is still the 2008 squad, which rode the No. 1 ranked defense to a national title. That team, of course, had three strong perimeter defenders — Mario Chalmers*, Russell Robinson and Brandon Rush — and center Sasha Kaun, a plus post defender in the paint.
*If you need more proof of Chalmers’ defensive abilities, a recent Sports Illustrated feature cited a Synergy Sports study that showed Chalmers was the best pick-and-roll defender in the NBA last season.
But, according to kenpom.com, the most efficient defensive squad during Self’s tenure was actually the 2007 team — by a hair, anyway — which fell to UCLA in the Elite Eight. One reason for the loss: the 2007 Kansas team ranked 17th in offensive efficiency, while the 2008 squad, a year older and sans Julian Wright, was the second-best offensive team in the nation. In fact, that 2007 KU team is the highest rated defensive team since 2003-04, the year Self took over in Lawrence.
Team; Points allowed per 100 possessions; How they finished
1. 2007 Kansas, 82.2 (Elite Eight)
2. 2009 Memphis, 82.5 (Sweet 16)
3. 2008 Kansas, 82.8 (NCAA title)
4t. 2004 Louisville, 83.9 (First round loss)
4t. 2008 UCLA, 83.9 (Final Four)
4t. 2008 Memphis 83.9 (NCAA title game)
Self has been hopeful about his team’s potential, particularly on the defensive end; last season, center Jeff Withey led the country in block percentage, rejecting 15.3 percent of opponents’ shots when he was on the floor. And the Jayhawks’ backcourt features three guards — Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore and Travis Releford —with the rare mix of length and above-average lateral quickness.
It will be interesting to see how KU matches up with smallish playmakers — think Baylor’s Pierre Jackson or K-State’s Angel Rodriguez — but Withey’s presence in the middle gives Kansas’ guards a 7-foot firewall in the paint. It’s still November, still too early for hard-and-fast projections. But with its offense still finding its way, Kansas will likely need to grind out a victory against Michigan State on the defensive end. In other words, they’ll need more pads… and fewer pillows.
Scouting Michigan State
While Bill Self was gritting his teeth through the Jayhawks’ victory over Southeast Missouri State on Friday, Tom Izzo was playing Clark W. Griswold as the Spartans lumbered through their season-opening European Vacation.
The result was a 66-62 loss to UConn in Germany. But here’s the bigger question: Will the transatlantic travel schedule have any residual effects when the Spartans take the floor at the Georgia Dome on Tuesday night?
The Spartans left Frankfurt, Germany, on Saturday morning. And the crash course on Kansas began.
“Plenty of film coming back,” MSU coach Tom Izzo told the Detroit Free Press. “(With) an eight- or nine-hour flight coming back we’ll have a lot of ability to watch film. We’ll have exhibition games, some games from last year, but going into it, (UConn was) just too big of a game.”
Michigan State lost All-America forward Draymond Green off last year’s squad, a team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the Spartans return three starters, including point guard Keith Appling, swingman Branden Dawson and 6-foot-10 center Adreian Payne.
Appling finished with a team-high 17 points on seven-of-17 shooting against UConn, while freshman guard Gary Harris, a McDonald’s All-American, had 11 points in his debut.
Senior Derrick Nix, a 6-foot-9 forward, could also be a load for Perry Ellis, Jamari Traylor or whichever KU power forward winds up with the matchup.
It appears likely, though, that Michigan State will play without reserve guard Travis Trice, who took a shot to the nose against UConn. On Monday, Izzo told the Detroit Free Press that Trice was a “triple question mark” for the KU game.
Manning, Brown win
Danny Manning picked up a victory in his first season-opener at Tulsa on Sunday, a 110-54 win over Louisiana Shreveport in Tulsa. Manning, who won titles at KU as a player and assistant coach, is embarking on his first season as a head coach.
Shaquille Harrison, a freshman from Lee’s Summit West, had nine points and seven steals in his Tulsa debut. Playing with an inexperienced squad, Manning faces a challenging schedule in his first season: During a seven-game stretch in November and December, Tulsa will play Wichita State, Missouri State, Creighton and Florida State.
Larry Brown, Manning’s former coach at Kansas, also scored a victory on Sunday as Southern Methodist topped Loyola Marymount 73-58 in Dallas. It was Brown’s first win as a collegiate head coach since the 1988 NCAA title game at Kemper Arena.