Last Saturday, more than three million people tuned in to watch Kansas beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, marking just the Wildcats’ third non-conference home loss in the John Calipari era. Bill Self‘s team completed the upset in part because it rolled up 52 second-half points, but also because it adequately defended the post thanks to a a mixture of zone looks limiting Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo to a mere 10 points while committing four turnovers –despite Carlton Bragg‘s suspension. While it would be silly to expect the Jayhawks to exclusively use zone defenses moving forward, Self’s thin rotation makes it reasonable to think it will continue to incorporate them to varying degrees, particularly against teams with legitimate post scorers. With Kansas ready to face one of the most versatile big men in the country tonight in Baylor‘s Johnathan Motley, we should get a litmus test of just how far the Jayhawks are willing to go to limit their opponents inside.
Motley’s ability to confidently operate in the mid-range as well as down low separates him from Adebayo and, for that matter, nearly every big man in college basketball. Per hoop-math.com, Motley has converted a steady 67.4 percent of his shots at the rim this season, but just 37 percent of his field goal attempts are considered close looks (compared to 67.3 percent for Adebayo). Farther from the hoop, Motley’s accuracy on two-point jumpers is an impressive 43 percent, and he attempts those more than half the time (55.2 percent FGA). Additionally, Motley’s 14.3 percent offensive rebounding rate ranks second in the conference, which means that Kansas’ zone will be even more vulnerable to putbacks than it would be against an average Big 12 team. Add it all up and you have a big dilemma for the Jayhawk defense: Collapse on Motley when the ball enters the post and become susceptible to backdoor cuts and clean looks from deep, or take your chances with Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas or Dwight Coleby guarding Motley one-on-one and risk foul trouble and second-chance buckets?
With Kansas’ frontcourt rotation so depleted, there’s no easy answer for the Jayhawks to handle a zone-buster like Motley. To keep control of the Big 12 race, Kansas may have to simply outscore its shortcomings the way it has since losing Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury. Self’s team will also have home court and history on its side, as Baylor has never won at Allen Fieldhouse and has especially struggled in recent years, losing its last five meetings in Lawrence by an average of 16.6 points per game. But if any one player can expose the Jayhawks’ lack of depth down low, it’s Motley.