No longer an elite rim-protecting team, which is a problem
All of what was said about the offense above applies to the defense in similar ways. Last year’s defense with Dotson and Azubuike was an utterly dominant force. They finished second in KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings, and it was the leading reason why Kansas would’ve been the odds-on favorite to win a theoretical NCAA Tournament. Other than forcing turnovers, which they were merely okay at, you could name a stat and the Jayhawks were near or at the very top of the nation in it.
Fast forward a year, and…well, post-Azubuike life is hard. Kansas ranked 18th nationally last year in allowing a FG% at the rim of 52%, blocking 17.8% of all rim attempts. It was nigh-impossible to get a shot over Azubuike if it didn’t have a quality pass leading up to it:
Critically, the Azubuike fulcrum in the middle along with Dotson and Marcus Garrett outside forced teams to beat Kansas by shooting over the top of them. (Replace Azubuike with Yves Pons and Dotson/Garrett with two of James/Johnson/Springer and you have Tennessee displaying a similar strategy.) Teams still got off attempts at the rim and shorter twos, of course, but it wasn’t without serious difficulty.
When I watched Gonzaga/Kansas on Thanksgiving Day, one of the first things I noticed was this: David McCormack is a good, fine player. However, he’s not nearly as athletic as Azubuike and, as such, lacks the same vertical and horizontal mobility. If you don’t have someone as scary as that to meet you at the rim, it’s a lot easier to get yours:
The other Kansas frontcourt member, Jalen Wilson, is a lot more effective on offense than on defense. This is to the point that, even after adjusting for 3PT% luck, Kansas’s defense goes from the 42nd-best unit in America with him on the court to being on Tennessee’s level of #2 nationally when he’s off. When both he and McCormack are on, it’s a feeding frenzy inside the arc:
And it’s kind of a shame, because by almost the exact same margin, the Kansas offense is much better with both on as it is worse on defense. All of this gets to the point eventually: Kansas has gone from 18th in FG% allowed at the rim to 134th (57.1%), blocking 14.8% of rim attempts but also dropping 3.8% from 63.2% to 67% on unblocked attempts. Teams are also getting nearly six more attempts at the rim per 100 possessions than they did last year, too. While McCormack and Lightfoot can both team up to still make life difficult:
The overall rim protection and pressure that we’ve grown to expect from Kansas just isn’t there right now. Teams aren’t having to shoot over the top of them anymore, and the shots going up at the rim have led to a significant reduction in mid-range attempts forced. In particular, Wilson seems to have some defensive holes in his game that make me think he needs at least another year or two under Self to try and iron out.
Marcus Garrett is hard to score on
If I find Wilson frustrating and see Kansas’s declining rim protection as the source of an overall defensive drop-off, then I also have to see Marcus Garrett’s valiant attempts on the perimeter to stop opposing guards as a sort of last stand. Garrett is the only player on the entire Kansas roster ranking in the top 500 nationally of KenPom’s Steal Rate statistic:
He isn’t perfect, and he may never be, but I admire anyone who happily takes on the toughest matchup he can and keeps his fouls low. Garrett does a great job of forcing opponents into off-balance dribble jumpers in particular.
Teams have been a bit lucky on threes, and Kansas forces a ton of bad pull-up jumpers
Lastly, we’ve got to talk threes, because the Self MO for a long time has been “the only way to beat us is to shoot over the top of us.” Obviously, with the lack of a true rim protector now, it’s not as necessary to shoot over Kansas as it used to be. That said, you still need to work to get good threes against this defense. Kansas does sit at the national average with a 54/46 Guarded/Unguarded rate, but it’s actually a significant improvement on last year’s 46/54. They’ve had a pretty unlucky run this season on guarded threes; opponents are shooting 4.1% better on those than the actual open attempts.
I like a lot of what they do on the perimeter, and my worry is that with how hyper-aggressive Kansas can be at times in forcing you to take bad, long twos, Tennessee’s guards will oblige them with gross 17-footers:
I’d prefer Tennessee not get back into their mid-range wave of taking anything that’s open; just take a step back and try the shot worth an additional point instead. Kansas will want Tennessee to have to score one-on-one as much as possible, because quite simply, they don’t have any active reasons to worry about any member on the roster’s ability in this department. We’ll monitor this.
NEXT PAGE: Have to save the “musicians from Tennessee ranked” thing for another day. That’s pretty difficult. Also this post is about basketball, somewhat