Understanding the Logic of Defending a Lead Bill Self Style

  • (Author’s note: I admit it, I get easily bored doing nothing, especially when sick. File this one under an unsophisticated attempt to distract myself.)

    Fans get frustrated with Bill Self for playing more conservatively the second half, after he gets a lead the first half.

    I have been among them at times.

    Why not keep doing what got you the lead?

    If you got it firing treys, why not keep firing treys?

    If you got it in transition, why not keep transitioning?

    Why slow it down, tighten it up, and go inside?

    Why play in a way that seems invariably to shrink a lead?

    Put another way, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

    But when a guy wins 82 percent of his games, it seems prudent to try to understand what he tends to do.

    Is it possible that he expects for the lead to shrink and doesn’t care?

    Well, we know he doesn’t care to a point, but when he starts pounding the advertising sign boards its reasonable to infer there is such a think as too much shrinkage of a lead. 🙂

    Still, when someone continues to do something repeated and wins 82% of the time doing it, he must be up to something, even if it doesn’t always go well. For we know: NOTHING ALWAYS GOES WELL. Shizz happens.

    While battling whatever dread crud I have, I found it diverting to do something highly simplified in order to try to lay what I had known since my playing days, but which I had never really taken the time to crucify on a spread sheet.

    The essence of it can be seen by creating a spread sheet with five conceptually simple rows entitled Possessions, Lead, KU PPP, Opponent’s PPP, and Adjusted Lead.

    Let possession start a 1 and count out to 30 for a second half. I know there could be more, but I am interested in keeping it as basic as possible.

    PPP is points per possession.

    Assign a conservative 1 PPP for KU. This conservative number is used to drive home the advantage of what Self does.

    Assign an optimistic 1.5 PPP for the opponent; this optimism also drives home the advantage of what Self does.

    Assume three lead scenarios to start the second half: KU up 20, KU up 15 and KU up 10. If the lead is less than that, assume KU would come out playing to build a lea, not defend one.

    For each possession add 1 PPP for KU to KU’s lead and subtract 1.5 PPP for KU’s opponent scoring and eating into KU’s lead on its possession. Forget for now that Self coaches defense, rebounding and strips precisely to ensure that his team has more possessions with attempts than the opposition. For the same of simplicity lets assume the possessions and shot attempts are the same for KU and its opponent. What varies is how many points per possession each team scores each possession of this hypothetical second half.

    Calculate the spread sheet over up to 30 possible possessions, i.e., 30 columns.

    (Note: my apologies for not including my spread sheet for you but I could not figure out how to do it. The rows and columns out the first five possessions look like below. You could easily create the spread sheet out to 30 possessions yourself in a minute or two.)


    Possessions 1 2 3 4 5

    Lead 20 19.5 19 18.5 18

    KU Score 1 1 1 1 1

    Opp. Score 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5

    Adj. Lead 19.5 19 18.5 18 17.5


    Possessions 1 2 3 4 5

    Lead 15 14.5 14 13.5 13

    KU Score 1 1 1 1 1

    Opp. Score 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5

    Adj. Lead 14.5 14 13.5 13 12.5


    Possessions 1 2 3 4 5

    Lead 10 9.5 9 8.5 8

    KU Score 1 1 1 1 1

    Opp. Score 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5

    Adj. Lead 9.5 9 8.5 8 7.5

    Look at the 20 point lead scenario first.

    In a 30 possession half KU leads by 5 at the end.

    In a 25 possession half KU leads by 7.5 points at the end.

    In a 20 possession half, KU leads by 10 at the end.

    The point is: with a 20 point lead, and scoring only 1 PPP, while the opponent hypothetically gets hot with 1.5 PPP, the more KU reduces the possessions, the more certain KU is to win the game.

    How do you reduce total possessions in a half? Slow it down. Run the stuff. Use plenty of shot clock. Work it inside for a high percentage shot and/or FTs? Walk away with a W, no matter if the other team gets hot, or you get cold. 1PPP is cold. 1.5 PPP is hot.

    This is why Self builds a lead one way, or another, and then defends it always the same way. You don’t have to shoot the ball well inside, or outside, to win by defending the lead by reducing the number of possessions. And if you do get your PPP by shooting well, and lower their PPP by playing good defense, then they are blown out.

    When you go to the 15 point scenario, you see that you are exactly tied in a 30 possession half, but if you cut it to a 25 possession half, you are up by 2.5. The trouble with 2.5 is that a lucky three at the end by an opponent off any mistake you make beats you.

    So: what would Self do in these situations. Often he tries to turn it into a 25 possession half but at about 19–20 possessions in he opens things up into a 4 out and one game, and starts playing to drive the rim for baskets and FTs to build up the 5 point lead. When an opponent cracks KU with pressure and KU misses and the lead goes negative, then Self opens up play and Brannen shoots a trey.

    The ten point half time lead scenario shows you are down 5 in a 30 possession half, down 2.5 in a 25 possession half, and even at a 20 possession half.

    So Self obviously cannot view a 10 point lead as lead to defend an entire half. Does that mean he opens it up and plays outside in? Not likely. A ten point, while not big enough to justify inside out for an entire half, is a big enough lead to justify inside out for the first 5 or 10 possessions. Why? Because assuming KU only scores 1 PPP for 5 possessions, KU’s lead, with the other team tearing up the nets at 1.5 PPP is at bare minimum still 7.5 points. And 10 possessions in KU’s lead is still 5 points. In short, Self gets to use his lead playing inside out for up to ten possessions trying to get the other team fouled up and getting KU into the 1&1 well before opponent, AND fouling up one of their best big men inside. Fouling up their big men inside early means KU gets to open it up into a spread offense aimed at driving for shots at the rim and a FT, which pushe KU’s PPP upward and makes the opposing team need more possessions to catch up.

    The key advantage to defending a lead, rather than building a lead, is that you do not have to shoot well to win, while the other team has to shoot the lights out even to catch up.

    They key disadvantage to defending a lead is that it often takes your players out of attack mode, until your players can learn not to rely on andrenaline and momentum to score. Once Self gets a team comfortable playing in a defend a lead mode, and they learn to keep their PPP up between 1 and 1.25 PPP, they become damned near unbeatable.

    Prior to the OU game this past Monday night in AFH, perhaps the most famous example of Self building a lead the first half and defending it the second half, was KU’s 2008 ring team’s semifinal round victory over UNC, where Self used a wrinkle of jumping into UNC’s passing lanes for most of the first half to build a double digit lead, and then coming out the second half defending the lead against a hard charging UNC team. UNC cut the lead to almost nothing before Self opened play up again. It was a harrowing ride for a fan, but it was a carefully modulated strategy by KU.

    Fans generally hate seeing KU’s big leads shrink to a close game. They tend to view it as squandering a lead.

    Self I believe views it quite differently.

    I believe Self views it as buying a lead with good play and some clever wrinkles the first half, and then judiciously spending that lead, while holding down the possessions, to make it statistically improbable for the opponent to come back no matter how well they shoot it, and no matter how poorly KU shoots it. One point per possession is not very hard to achieve, even if you shooting goes ice cold.

    And it is this opportunity to defend leads that Self wants this current, good shooting KU team to develop the ability to do.

    Self rightly foresees the ability of this short, good shooting team of his to be able to build leads with outside shooting.

    But he also rightly recognizes that high percentage shooting can leave you at any moment.

    Thus, if he develops this teams ability to build a lead early, it is doubly potent if once it has built the lead it becomes skilled at defending it without relying on continuing the good shooting.

    And if the team cannot build a lead early, well then being short, the fewer times it has to defend a massively taller and more effective short range scoring team, the better in the second half, until such time, as Self decides to unleash his teams strength—outside shooting, and make a run to win it at the end.

    I am not saying there is no counter case to be made here for playing it another way. I am just trying to lay out the logic of doing it as Coach Self does it.

    Coach Self might alternatively spend the whole half trying to build the lead, as a means of making it tougher to catch up, but that would require continued good shooting.

    Coach Self might also try couple hybrids of what he does.

    He might might do exactly as he does, but ALWAYS kick it out for a trey.

    Or he might dispense with going inside out, and play outside in, but run the clock down outside before running some action for a trey.

    Think of this post above and the little model of defending a lead as a benchmark for next exploring these alternative scenarios I have mentioned, and maybe others I have not thought of.

    Rock Chalk! And cough, cough!

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