The Big 12 has been around for 18 seasons of basketball. In those 18 seasons, the University of Kansas has either shared or won outright the regular season title 14 times. This includes finishing first in the league the last ten consecutive years.
So despite the fact that the Big 12 appears to be full of worthwhile challengers to the Jayhawks this season, and despite the fact that Bill Self will have to replace Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid -- two of the first three players selected in the 2014 NBA draft, Kansas still rightfully expects to win the Big 12.
Kansas dominates the league in part because it enjoys an institutional advantage that no other Big 12 program can match. The history and name of Kansas makes the school a desirable destination for many of the best players in the country. This shows clearly in recruiting, where Kansas is able to win more than its fair share of battles. From 2005-2013, the Jayhawks brought 11 McDonald's High School All-Americans to Lawrence. The nine other teams in the Big 12 combined to land a total of 20 of these players over the same time. Talent is never a problem for KU.
If Kansas basketball seems like an unstoppable machine, that is probably because it is one.
At Kansas, it is All About the Big Guys
More than anything else, Kansas' success under Bill Self has been about getting great results from outstanding big men. The consistency of Kansas on defense is in large part due to a great run of rim protectors, including C.J. Giles, Julian Wright, Sasha Kaun, Darrell Arthur, the Morris twins, Joel Embiid, Cole Aldrich, and Jeff Withey. In Self's 11 seasons as the head coach of Kansas, the Jayhawks have finished in the top 15 nationally in opponent two point shooting percentage nine times. This, combined with great rebounding, is largely responsible for the fact that Kansas almost always has a top ten defense.
Kansas this season is likely to get this rim defense from multiple sources. 6-8 freshman center Cliff Alexander, the number two incoming center in the country per the RSCI composite rankings, is certainly one candidate to help defend the basket. Another candidate is 6-10 Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson, who as a freshman had the fifth highest shot block percentage in the nation, per kenpom.com. 6-8 junior Jamari Traylor and 6-10 sophomore Landen Lucas also can contribute to the Kansas interior D.
Perry Ellis and the Kansas Offense
Self's big men get to shine on offense as well. The Kansas offense works to get the ball inside to post players with deep position in the lane. When a big man can seal his defender deep in the paint there isn't much need for a fancy low post move, making a high percentage shot near the rim likely. This approach can take a player who may have limited offensive skill and turns him into a dangerous weapon inside. And for a skilled interior scorer like Perry Ellis, Self's offense can be a nightmare for opponents.
When a post player can catch the ball with one or two feet already in the lane, with his defender sealed off, the defensive player is already almost beat. A major objective of the Kansas offense is to create as many deep post touches as possible, many of which this season will go to Ellis. Self uses a lot of different tools to accomplish this, but the biggest one is ball reversal. Below we show several examples of how this works in the Jayhawk offense.
Ellis posts off of a ball screen.
In the first example, we will show Ellis getting deep post position after ball reversal coming off of a ball screen. We pick up with the ball on the wing, in the image below. A ball screen is being set on the wing, with two weak side offensive players spacing the floor on the opposite side. Perry Ellis is in the post, being denied good position by his defender.
Ellis isn't fighting particularly hard to win better position, because he is preparing for ball reversal. After the screen is set, we get to the image below. Ellis is preparing to seal off his defender.
Advancing a few more frames, we get to the next image. The dribbler has drawn a helping defender, and is now preparing to make the ball-reversing pass to the wing.
Finally, the ball comes to the wing, and Ellis has his defender sealed off. Ellis probably could have sealed his man even deeper if he would have started sooner, but as things stand he has one foot in the paint and his man walled off. The result after ball entry will be a shot close to the basket.
Ellis in the high-low offense.
Kansas runs a lot of side to side action in its offense. Kansas' primary offensive action has come to be known as the "high-low motion," which features both low post play and screens away from the ball.
The basic action of Self's high-low offense is fairly simple. The ball starts with a pass to the wing. In the example below, the point guard then cuts from the top to the strong side corner (cutting to the opposite corner is also possible), while the strong side post player screens away for his counterpart.
To make the action easier to follow, the next image only has advanced by a few frames. Note that the cut to the corner and the cross screen is still in progress.
After screening across, the screening big man pops out to receive a reversing pass. The wing player will follow up this pass by screening down for the point guard in the corner.
In the frame below, we see that a big man with the ball is up top, while Perry Ellis is on the low block. This is the basic action that gives the high-low offense its name. Quite frequently, the ball will now swing to the nearside wing, and the big man will then set the second half of a staggered screen for the point guard running from the corner. But in this case this does not happen.
Instead of reversing the ball to number 1, the big man passes to the point guard coming off the screen at the top of the frame. This brings us to the image below, where Ellis once again has his defender sealed off, and is ready to receive an entry pass.
Playing offense like this tends to allow big men to put up impressive scoring totals. This season, many of these points will go to Ellis, who has great footwork and a tremendous feel for scoring around the rim. Additionally, physical freshman Cliff Alexander is likely to get his share of opportunities as well, as will junior post player Jamari Traylor.
While playing offense this way is great for big men, it tends to make things more difficult for perimeter players. With the strongside block almost always occupied, it takes away a clean path for a dynamic perimeter player to attack the rim.
The Perimeter Players
Bill Self will enjoy a deep and talented back court this season. It is deep enough that Conner Frankamp recently announced his plan to transfer out of Kansas to get more playing time.
Self's best returning guard is Wayne Selden. The 6-5 sophomore had a solid freshman season, and at least must have contemplated declaring for the NBA draft. Selden's perimeter shot didn't fall quite as often as he might have liked last season -- he connected on 33 percent of his 128 threes -- but outside of that he had an excellent freshman year. I won't be surprised if a few more of those threes drop this season, and Selden finishes the year on the All-Conference team.
Working with Selden in the back court will be sophomore point guard Frank Mason. Mason had a solid freshman year coming off the bench for the departed Naadir Tharpe. Pushing Mason for minutes will be freshman Devonte' Graham.
After Cliff Alexander, the biggest recruit for Kansas is Kelly Oubre. The athletic 6-7 lefty from New Orleans spent his senior year playing for Findley Prep in Nevada. Rated as one of the ten best recruits in the country by virtually every service, Oubre is big enough and physically gifted enough to compete with anyone.
Two other players will push for playing time on the Kansas perimeter. 6-7 sophomore Brannen Greene is a player who can stretch the defense with his shot. He rarely played last season, but this year will have a chance to take minutes coming off the bench.
6-8 Ukrainian freshman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will challenge Greene for playing time. Mykhailiuk can stroke the ball from outside and has a solid handle as well. As is common with international players, the recruiting services don't have very much to say about him, but there is quite a bit of video available on line. Mykhailiuk is fairly young for a college freshman, having just turned 17 in June.
Kansas is once again the undisputed favorite to win the Big 12. With so many strong teams in the Big 12, don't be surprised if the Jayhawks remain above the fray in the league standings, watching below as all of the challengers tear each other apart.
If there is a concern for Bill Self, it is that he only returns a handful of players with significant D-I experience, and that the second season in a row he will have to turn to true freshman to make things work. If Alexander struggles, Kansas still has substantial depth to draw on inside. But if Oubre has a hard time adjusting to the college game, his backups are nearly as inexperienced as he is. Kansas has much more depth in the front court than it does on the perimeter.
Still, even if Oubre fails to be great, Kansas still has enough overall talent to pull through, and will be able to lean on Ellis and Selden on offense.