Many people are upset or at least annoyed that the Jayhawks were only able to beat TCU, the bottom feeder of the Big 12, by only 3 points in a game that was close for nearly the entire game. After defeating Texas on the road, many thought the team had found their identity and wouldn’t be turning back. Several have zeroed in on one key stat for the Jayhawks this year and have made some very compelling arguments regarding the correlation between the number of three pointers the team takes, and the success of the team offensively. Unlike past years where a high number of long range attempts usually meant settling for jump shots instead of attacking the paint, this year the 3 point shot is our most powerful weapon. Kansas is shooting almost 40% as a team from deep. This leads to the general assumption that as a team they should always shoot a significant amount so as to capitalize on this strength. This is true but it also is not.
Bill Self is a very good coach. He wins lots and lots of games. He is especially good at beating good teams, historically. However, for some reason he seems more likely to be upset (or played close) by not as good teams. This is not coincidence. He is not lucky or unlucky. As Jaybate pointed out several years ago, Self appears to “amp” the team for some games and send them out “flat” others. “Amp” meaning sending them out with energy, wrinkles, and a strategy that will crush the other team, “Flat” referring to low energy, basic game plan, and a strategy that makes the team work. I doubted for a long time the validity of this assertion, but I now see it likely has at least some truth to it.
It may have taken some time this year, but Self has figured out that this team’s biggest strength is their ability to shoot the three. Even though that style of play goes against Self’s traditional basketball values, he has utilized it recently in the games against the best teams. Against “weaker opponents” (though TCU is not necessarily a weak opponent this year) we have seen a dramatic difference in style of play. Where this team struggles is scoring inside. So, Self, a man who loves toughness and balance is demanding his team play inside when he thinks they can win that way, and maximizing their shooting strength when they need it. We have seen this for whole games and half by half. And on the surface this works as a decent explanation.
However, I feel there is some deeper, mad scientist, work going on here. I think Self this year is trying to beat the law of averages. My biggest fear for this team relying on 3 pointers is the inevitable 2 or 3 for 20 game from deep that just happens sometimes. It is very difficult, nearly impossible to win such games as GREAT shooting teams like Utah and Gonzaga have shown. Too many possessions are wasted without points or opportunities for fouls to really have a chance to win such a game where the shots just don’t fall. We barely missed such a game in Austin purely on the shooting of Greene. Everyone else was off from deep.
So this year, I think Self is actively trying to encourage bad shooting nights against teams we can beat inside while limiting the actual number of 3 pointers taken. So here is the strategy as I see it. On a night we are playing a team we are supposed to beat, guards and Perry can take a 3 if it comes to them but we aren’t going to work for those shots. Also, if you make your first one, you are done. No player can waste a hot shooting night against a low level team. If you keep missing, keep shooting. That is how we have come to several 3-8, 2-7, and 3-11, shooting nights. Yes Mason shot 5 three pointers but he only made the last one so no harm done to the law of averages.
The key is to keep the 3pt% low in these games. Other strategies Self might employ in these scenarios include: frequent subbing to prevent game flow, focus on feeding the post, sitting Greene, the “quick hook,” harsh/negative timeout talks. On the flip side in games where they need to play their best to win strategies include: minutes for Greene, opportunity to get into the flow, 4 out 1 in, faster tempo, more positive bench interaction, encouragement to take open shots even if they miss.
HEM has suggested that a sound strategy this year would be to give Greene minutes early and if he is on “ride the wave.” This clearly works. However, Self is not the kind of man to leave his game plan up to the mood of a “wild hare” like Greene. No, he wants to be the one to make the wave. Save Greene, and his other sharp shooters, peak performances for when he needs them. Make sure they don’t get the opportunity to breakout against weak competition and the law of averages allows them to crest when he wants them to.
Unfortunately for HEM specifically, this means that during the tournament there will be a game or 2 (or 3 if we are lucky) where Bill Self appears to intentionally throw a game by going away from a strategy he knows works. We will play a team we should handle easily and win (or lose) a close one while only shooting 10 or less three pointers. We will not make more than 5 that game. HEM will be furious.
Self will make this gamble. Because the law of averages is real, and he refuses to let it rule him. Bill Self makes waves, he does not ride them.