CHICAGO — The Kansas Jayhawks became one of the best teams in college basketball this year because of their offense, which is still one of the best in the nation according to KenPom.
However, it’s been KU’s defense that has carried the Jayhawks to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2018. Even in games in which their offense has struggled, such as in their Sweet 16 win over Providence, their defense effort was enough to earn a hard-fought victory.
To Kansas coach Bill Self, they’re inching closer and closer to their true potential defensively.
“I think we’re getting closer,” Self said. “I thought last night the first half is the best we’ve played defensively. But it’s probably as poor as we played offensively, too.”
Against Providence, Kansas shot just 39.3% from the floor and a meager 13.3% from three-point range. The Jayhawks held the Friars to even worse shooting percentage, though, at 33.8% overall and a comparable 17.4% from deep.
One of the themes of the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for KU has been finding ways to win without making shots. It was able to do that in the Sweet 16, but it will take another strong effort to do that in the Elite 8 against the Miami Hurricanes with little time to prepare.
“I think you can familiarize them with personnel, with tendencies, especially a team like Miami that scores so much off individual talent,” Self said. “I do think that we can do a good job with that.”
Team defense has been the story for the Jayhawks, but standout individual efforts have been a key factor in that team success. A crucial example of that comes with senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who’s shooting under 32% from the field in the NCAA tournament but came up with several clutch defensive plays in the Sweet 16, including a career-high four blocked shots.
If he’s not scoring, it’s imperative for Agbaji to find other ways to contribute. That’s exactly what he’s been able to do on the defensive end.
“He’s an all-around player. That’s why he’s All-American,” senior guard Remy Martin said about Agbaji. “That’s why he is who he is because he helps us in so many things on the court that people may not see on a stat sheet. And that’s why he’s the best player in the country. That’s why he is who he is.”
Martin, of course, has put his own stamp on March this year, carrying the Jayhawks, sometimes singlehandedly, on offense.
He collected a season-high 23 points in the win over Providence, 13 of which came in the first half, when Kansas as a whole scored just 26 points. Martin has remained gracious and humble when speaking with reporters throughout the tournament, and he continued to do that when discussing his recent play on Saturday.
“I’m just being myself out there,” Martin said. “I’m happy that I’m healthy, thanks to the trainers and everybody who has stuck with me, my family and everything. But I’m just happy to go out there and play my game the way I know how to play it. And these guys have been extremely helpful throughout the whole process. So, a big credit to my teammates and my coaches for just believing in me.”
Martin’s year began with plenty of fanfare, including Big 12 preseason player of the year honors, before being derailed by injuries through a large chunk of the conference season. Now, fully healthy, he’s turned into what Kansas always hoped he could be.
“I think our goal going into the year was a Remy Martin would give this team something that we needed. We needed speed. We needed personality. We needed explosiveness. And he obviously provides all those things. But he hasn’t had opportunity to provide them, really, all year long,” Self said, going on to add: “And so somehow or another, in the last three weeks or so, he’s been able to combine comfort, personality, health, explosiveness, all these things in a way that we haven’t even seen yet this year.”
Kansas has been to the Final 4 three times under Self, but it’s also lost in the Elite 8 six times. Self said on Saturday that it’s the toughest game of the tournament and takes a different kind of preparation.
This year’s Jayhawks are built to make the leap. Or, at least, they’re at a point now where you can trust both ends of the floor to make key plays at the right moments.
The defense is playing as well as it has all season long, and the advanced numbers, like KenPom’s, reflect that. If the offense can wake up, KU will likely make its fourth Self-led trip to the Final 4.
“To win at this level, and from this point in the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to do both,” Self said. “And we’re still waiting for the lid to come off. But we believe that will happen tomorrow.”
Click below to hear what Bill Self and the Jayhawks had to say about facing the Miami Hurricanes in the Elite 8.