How to Beat KU Once, or Watch Out for Ethan

  • Whenever conventional wisdom reaches consensus that a team is a powerhouse that cannot be beaten, I always have to laugh.

    1. Frank McGuire knew KU could be beaten in the National Finals, if he could just keep his team close enough to Wilt’s Jayhawks, so that the inexperienced Dick Harp would eventually outthink himself. All it took was letting Wilt have his points, shutting down the rest of the KU starters, and waiting for Harp to try to use indirection, when it was unnecessary. Harp called a play for a lesser player rather than Wilt with seconds to go. Because UNC was guarding the other players so tightly, the first-year coach’s indirection was exactly the wrong move.

    2. Guy Lewis knew UCLA could be beaten in the Astrodome, when Lew Alcindor had a scratched cornea, even though most doubted it. Unprecedented shooting back ground, plus denial defense with Elvin Hayes geared to force action to Alcindor’s half blind side, plus defensive specialist 6-4 Don Chaney smothering 5-10 Mike Warren and 6-2 Lucious Allen on ball handling switches, and forcing play to plus Alcindor’s half blind side, plus a UCLA offense grown too dependent on Jabbar’s sky hook, equalled upset.

    3. Digger Phelps knew UCLA could be beaten when Walton and UCLA had gotten too dependent on Walton’s long passes off rebounds to create transition baskets. Rough up Walton and Wilkes, deny the long outlet pass, let UCLA’s 2-2-1 zone reduce total trips (not increase TOs) and constantly isolate ND’s superior impact player on the perimeter, Adrian Dantley (or was it Carr?). Upset.

    4. Self knew KU could beat favorite UNC in the National Semifinals, if he could turn it from a skill and finesse game, which favored UNC, to a game of length, muscle and athleticism, where he knew he held advantage. Few else could see how he could do it; i.e., how the refs would let him do it against Roy and his Media Darling Heels. Self gambled huge. He ordered his entire team to over play and jump into the passing lanes with maximum effort from tip off. Overwhelming disruption resulted that essentially shut off UNC’s transition game AND largely prevented the ball from ever getting to a constantly bodied Psycho T in a scoring position. Self used a leave it all on the floor the first half, and a disruption defense to take away and strip UNC’s passing lanes and rely on his more athletic bigs to deny the rim to an offense geared to ball movement to get Hansborough open. KU jumped to a large lead, when Roy unwisely waited to half time to adjust and overrun an exhausted KU in the second half. Self immediately went on energy budget conservation the second half, slowed his offensive pace to a walk, ran weaves to make UNC guard, fouled as little as possible to keep the clock running (and so gave up many uncontested baskets) and generally managed a steady dwindle of the lead to coincide with UNC running out of steam at the very end. UNC almost came back and won. But KU had a little more gas in the tank at the end, after resting for 16 minutes, and turned his more traditional helping pressure defense back on to close out the win.

    Two D1 coaches in history are arguably the masters of the upset of Number 1 ranked teams in regular season, because each upset 7 number one teams. Digger Phelps and Gary Williams are the coaches. Both coached an extremely physical brand of ball and relied on one, or two, MUA impact players on the perimeter and lugs inside.

    Digger in particular specialized in the 2-4 point upset. Lesser teams do not blow out Number 1s except out in XTReme Right Tail episodes.

    Digger, as much as I loath his phone-it-in, hold the upper midwest eyeballs, broadcast strategy (sound though it may be from a personal career standpoint), knew how to upset hugely talented D1 teams with his teams composed of much less depth and talent (though he often had one terrific player in his quiver). The son of the undertaker understood the crucial rules of strategy and tactics against a more talented opponent.

    Keep it close. Get the enemy out of its comfort zone, Keep it close. Find the dependence/weakness of an overpowering opponent and keep picking at it. Keep it close. Try NEVER to attack or defend its strengths. Attack weakness on offense: on defense, channel play away from strength. Keep it close. Assume occasional failures, and stick to the plan. Keep it close. Maneuver constantly to avoid attacking, or defending the opponent’s strengths. Stay between your opponent and its objectives: comfort level and a sizable lead. Keep it close. Resort to surprise. Keep it close. Use any means to keep it close. Keep it close. Adapt first. Keep it close. Never be drawn into attacking, or defending the opponent’s strength even when falling behind. Keep it close. Keep the focus on winning, not short term results of tactics, or strategy. Keep it close. Never, never, never, never, think for a second a win can be gotten early, or at any other time but at the buzzer. Keep it close. An early lead, or a lead any other time, just makes it easier to keep it close at the end. Keep it close. A deficit anytime just makes it harder, not impossible, to keep it close at the end. Less powerful teams always beat more powerful teams at the end, never any other time. Keep it close.

    So: how do you beat KU once? and why do I specify once?

    Last question first. Self understands the principle of how you do it. Keep it close while attacking his weaknesses, and avoiding his strengths. In the bromide “there is more than one way to skin a cat,” the preceding amounts to the cat. But it is the more ways than one part where Self is human and cannot always foresee in advance the skinning method to be anticipated.

    Here it is.

    First, consider these are the givens.

    1. KU is highly productive on offense and tends to outscore its opponents.

    2. Neither KU’s starters, nor bench, are exceptional defenders capable of exerting much disruption…yet.

    3. KU’s starters are hugely more talented than its bench, but Self insists on playing his bench in any games where there is a follow up game coming within a few days.

    4. KU’s length and athleticism is happiest mixing easy transition baskets with high percentage half court ball movement created shots.

    What the givens imply.

    a) You want a low possession game against KU’s starters BUT you want a high possession game against its bench.

    b) You want its bench on the floor as much as possible.

    c) You want to eliminate transition basketball against the starters and enable it against the bench.

    d) Guard the trey stripe and don’t foul the bigs against the starters, but guard the trey stripe, encourage the post pass, and foul the bigs off the bench every chance you get (but before the shot, or so that the shot cannot go in).

    Essentially, what you do is try to slow the game down whenever the KU starters are in by using up the entires shot clock on offense, every possession, while making the KU starters slide as much as possible on defense.

    On defense you use a 2-2-1 and alternate a half court zone and m2m not to disrupt, but to lengthen KU’s starting team possessions as much as possible.

    Again, NO FOULING the KU starters. Keep the clock running. Don’t give KU starters a single point while the clock is stopped EVER.

    To do this without tipping your hand. You start your starters, but sub them after a minute. Keep your subs in as long as possible without letting the KU lead get beyond ten.

    The minute Self subs at his usual 5 minute juncture (which he will do until he has seen this once) , you bring your starters.

    Your starters play a transition game with KU’s bench.

    The minute Self counters with his starters, you counter with your bench and go into long possession ball until the lead gets to ten, then bring your starters. About that time, Self will bring his subs again.

    Go back to transition.


    After half, start your starters again, then stay counter to whatever Self does with his starters.

    Long possessions against KU starters, short possession against KU’s bench. Get as many trips and as many clock stopped scoring opps against his bench as possible.

    So what scheme would I run to accomplish this?

    2-2-1 coupled with a stretched Princeton system with my subs. Long cuts. Long passes. Lots of ball movement.

    Then whatever offense and defenses optimizes your starters and enables them to get in and stay in transition against KU’s bench.

    Since Self hasn’t seen this approach before, he would never adapt to it until half time. So you have bought one close half and likely as not a lead.

    The second half would see you countering his counters, but never veering from the basic strategy: long possessions when KU’s starters are in. Short possessions when KU’s bench is in.

    KU’s starters are still not used to having to play 30-40 mpg.

    Travis Ford revealed that the 2-2-1 and lengthening KU’s possessions was very effective in keeping a game close with KU. But then Travis did not take the tactic and fit it into a larger strategy of slowing trips against starters and shortening trips against the KU bench.

    All offense and defense is about creating net benefit with deployment of resources.

    Most Big Eight teams could get more net benefit out of playing a fast possession game with their starters against KU’s bench than they can playing any kind of game against KU’s starters.

    Using your bench, even if it is vastly less skilled than the KU starters, to lengthen those possessions is the BEST way to get the most net benefit out of that bench.

    It would be better for the lesser string to give the superior team fewer trips. Then use the better string to get more trips against the opponent’s lesser string.

    Keep it close.

    Then go for the win the last 3 minutes. Either KU’s starters will have had to play the whole game to counter this strategy and be gassed at the end. Or your starters will have scored so much on KU’s second string, and KU’s starters will have had very few trips to score regardless of how efficiently they score, and so it will be close and you try to win it at 3 minutes.

    And If Self freezes in the headlights of the previously unseen as everyone does occasionally, then the lesser team is very likely to have a comfortable lead to milk down the stretch.

    The mantra: longer possessions and no FTAs allowed the KU starting team, short possessions and lots of FTAs allowed the KU second string.

    Protect under both approaches and, voila, KU, which does not like to win with defense, will be forced to do just that. And it probably won’t be able to.

    Now, Ethan (or Mr. Phelps, if you are older), this post will self-destruct within 5 seconds. And as always, if you, or any member, of your Impossible Mission Force were discovered, jaybate will disavow any knowledge of your existence.

    (Cue the Mission Impossible theme)

  • @jaybate 1.0

    Some very interesting analysis. I agree with you that in order to beat KU you have to slow the game down. KU just has too much offensive talent to try and out score them in an up and down game. KU has two elite collegiate level scorers in Wiggins and Ellis, along with two very good collegiate scorers in Selden and Embiid. Pretty much on any given night two of those guys will get going. Wiggins, Selden and Ellis have all shown that they can go for 20+. Tharpe can also score if left unchecked, so the starters can really hurt a team on the offensive end.

    Unlike past years, this years team probably will not lose to an undertalented team. You can’t really gimmick them to death because gimmicks won’t keep Ellis, Embiid, Wiggins, and Selden all quiet for 40 minutes. You need a lot of talent.

    The formula is simple - be physical with the front line. Not physical to the point of fouling because, as you observed, Wiggins, Ellis and Embiid are all good enough at the line to make you pay for putting them there. But you have to be physical, as this has been shown as a way to really take Perry out of his game. Perry is, in some ways, the most important Hawk to eliminate because KU typically tries to get him going first. If he struggles, the offense will typically stagnate early on. If you can knock Perry off stride, then you have to force Wiggins and Selden into lots of guarded two point jump shots.

    The most important thing is to turn the PG into a scorer. While Tharpe and Mason can both scorer (Conner, too), if they are having to score it probably means that they aren’t getting contributions from the big 4.

    Finally, deny the Color Guard (White, Greene, Black) any chance of getting into a rhythm on the offensive end. That means no open jumpers for White and Greene, and no offensive rebounds for Black.

    If you can do that, you can limit KU to about 60 points. Their season low is 57 against San Diego State.

    Now you have to find 65 points of your own. The quickest way to do that is to force turnovers, probably at least 18. You will need about 20 points off turnovers because KU’s set defense is improving, especially with Embiid continuing to develop as a rim protector.

    You will also need to shoot the three well. KU is vulnerable to the 3pt shot, so if you can hit 8-12 threes, (24-36 points), you won’t need that many two point FGs.

    Finally, you need to get to the line at least 20 times. Villanova shot 29 FTs against KU (winning 63-59). Florida shot 34 FTs (winning 67-61). SDSU shot 18 FTs (winning 61-57). Colorado shot 37 FTs (winning 75-72) and was aided by a buzzer beater at the end of each half. Oklahoma State shot only 16 in the two point loss to KU. You have to get to the line often (and shoot a solid percentage) to beat KU. Notice that SDSU only survived because they are an elite defensive team. Had they not been an elite defensive team, they lose simply because they would not have scored enough points to beat KU even though they played well enough.

    Because of the talent KU has, the margin to beat them is pretty small. You need turnovers, a good three point shooting night and lots of FTs to have a chance. Miss one of those ingredients and you likely still lose.

  • @justanotherfan Terrific analysis. One of your keys–getting 20 FTAs–perhaps explains Self’s choice not to apply so much pressure in a season when refs are calling the game closer. In the XTReme Muscle era, going for an edge in strips and blocks was the MO, since the refs didn’t call nany fouls for doing so. But in the Low Touch Era, holding down fouls to keep the opponent off the line is a preferred trade off.

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