Kansas Wins Because It Guards, Plain and SimplePosted by dnspewak on March 16th, 2013
Danny Spewak (@dspewak) is a Big 12 microsite writer. He filed this from the Big 12 Championship game in Kansas City.
Clank, clank, clank. In an arena jam-packed to the rafters and charged with as much emotion as any game in college basketball this season, the most prominent sound during the first half of the Big 12 Tournament title game at the Sprint Center was the sound of those clanks that Kansas State heaved repeatedly at the basket. After taking an 11-8 lead against Kansas with 11:55 to play in the half, the Wildcats did not make another field goal during the next 17 possessions. They were 0-of-11 from the field during that stretch. Five turnovers. Heroically, they trailed by just eight points at the break, but they were already buried. Once the Jayhawks found their groove offensively in the second half, Kansas State never kept pace and eventually fell, 70-54.
You don’t want to see the final statistics for Bruce Weber’s team. “The best thing we did was shoot free throws,” Angel Rodriguez said, “and we shot 50 percent. That says a lot.” Rodney McGruder had a simple diagnosis for the anemic offense. “It wasn’t really their defense,” McGruder said. “We missed easy baskets at the rim.” The second part of that statement is correct. Kansas State missed more open shots than an overweight, middle-aged man trying to play a game of H-O-R-S-E, especially during the drought in the first half. But McGruder is wrong about the first part — there’s another reason his team couldn’t score, and it wasn’t self-inflicted. “Our first shot defense was about as good as it’s been all year long,” coach Bill Self said. As always, it was a collective effort for Kansas. Jeff Withey, the Big 12’s leading shot blocker, finished with only one block, but he teamed with Kevin Young and Perry Ellis to bother the Wildcats’ on the interior with their length.
However, there was one individual defender for Kansas who may have affected the game more than anybody on the roster. Travis Releford drew the tall task of guarding McGruder. He didn’t disappoint. “Travis did an unbelievable job on him,” Self said. Releford smothered him, forcing him to miss eight of his first 10 shots from the field. McGruder finished with a team-high 18 points, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The all-Big 12 wing had to work for every single point, and every time he came off a screen in Weber’s motion offense, Releford was able to fight through and stick in McGruder’s face. “The key was the help from my teammates, letting me know when screens were coming. I knew I had to make him uncomfortable and not let him get easy looks,” Releford said. At one point in the first half, Self had Releford on the bench and assigned Ben McLemore to McGruder for a possession. He got abused off the dribble, and almost instantaneously, Self sent Releford to the scorer’s table. “When Travis is really tuned in, he’s as good a perimeter defender as there is in the country.”
That’s why this Kansas team will win in March. Defense. When Naadir Tharpe and Elijah Johnson play as well at the point as they did today, the Jayhawks hardly have any weaknesses. But even though their point guards have played inconsistently and sometimes stagnate the offense, this team really gets after people on the defensive end. Besides Withey and Releford, both of whom earn a lot of accolades for their defense, Self has a collection of great athletes who commit to that end of the floor and take pride in shutting people down. Kansas State is not necessarily an offensive juggernaut, but it had no chance on Saturday. “They were doing such a good job defensively that we got impatient,” Weber said.
The statistics don’t lie, either. Kansas ranks in the top 15 nationally for defensive efficiency and opponent field goal percentage. As a team, it has had major hiccups (see: TCU, as well as the embarrassment in Waco on the final day of the regular season), but you know what basketball purists say about defense. If you play it well, you’ve got a chance in any game. So that’s why the Jayhawks have overcome point guard issues and offensive problems to win both a Big 12 regular season and tournament title this year. That’s why even when McLemore goes scoreless in the first half and finishes with a quiet five points, the Jayhawks can dominate a top-15 opponent on a neutral floor.
So, tell us, Travis Releford. Does it ever get old? “What, winning? No, not at all,” Releford said. Especially against Kansas State. The Jayhawks have a 47-3 record in their last 50 games against their in-state “rival.” If you want to call it that. “It’s a big rivalry, but it’s not a rivalry until we make it a rivalry,” Weber said. “That means beat them somewhere.” Maybe next year.