College basketball: Defense may hold key to season for No. 2 Kansas
Lawrence, Kan. • There are few things that Kansas coach Bill Self loves more than playing defense.
But he also loves a roster full of NBA-caliber talent on his team, and sometimes it's hard for those two loves to coexist.
The knock on the professional game for years fairly or not has been that defense is optional. Coaches routinely bemoan the rather lackadaisical way that one-and-done phenoms often apply themselves on that end of the floor.
So attention was paid when Kansas star Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall recruit and the potential top pick in next year's NBA draft, sidled up next to Self on the sideline in the second half of a blowout win over Towson and asked to guard the Tigers' best player.
"He was scoring," Wiggins said of Towson's Jerrelle Benimon, "and I just wanted to see how I'd do against him." With a big smile, Wiggins added: "I think my defense is underrated."
It's the kind of comment certain to make Self smile, too.
Wiggins isn't the only highly touted recruit on the second-ranked Jayhawks' roster this season or the only player potentially headed to the pros next season. Seven-footer Joel Embiid has already shown enough to make scouts salivate, and freshman guard Wayne Selden and sophomore forward Perry Ellis have exhibited enough in four games to send their stock soaring.
But the ability for Self to get the young, offensive-minded Jayhawks to buy into what he wants on defense may just be what decides whether this becomes a season to remember.
"It's an entire team of young'uns," Self said, "and it's going to be frustrating from time to time, but hopefully it'll be very rewarding at the end."
It's worked in the past.
The Jayhawks have won an astonishing nine consecutive regular-season Big 12 titles in part because, in 10 seasons under Self, they've led the league in defensive field-goal percentage eight times. Twice they've been the best in the nation.
That includes last season, when Kansas had 7-footer Jeff Withey swatting just about every shot that was put up in the paint. On the perimeter, Ben McLemore became one of the team's best defenders, even though he was destined for the NBA after playing just one season in Lawrence.
When the Jayhawks won the national championship in 2008, they allowed opponents to shoot just under 38 percent, best in the Big 12 and third-best nationally.
It's quite the standard for a new starting five to live up to, but one they appear to be taking seriously. After a lackluster win over Louisiana-Monroe in which they let their opponent shoot 42.9 percent, the Jayhawks were appropriately critical of their defensive effort. No prompting from Self was required.
"We've been working on our defense, defensive rotation, and mostly how to guard our man without fouling," Embiid said. "We're still learning."
Yes, there are also those pesky fouls to consider.
Officials are cracking down on the physical hand-checking on the perimeter, and that's part of what's made Kansas so tough over the years. Self prefers players to get into the face of an opponent and harass them in the half-court, and that's become nearly impossible now.
"If you can guard the ball that eliminates a lot of rotation-type situations. If you can guard the ball. I'd like to guard the ball better," Self said. "But I just think as a whole, a mindset of not relaxing during possessions I think is something we need to improve on."
Improvement is coming slowly, four games into the season.