CHICAGO — The Kansas Jayhawks are playing their best basketball of the season, and it’s becoming hard to argue against that. They’ve won seven games in a row, including a hard-fought victory over Creighton in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and they’re guarding as well as they have all season.
In coach Bill Self’s eyes, though, there’s more work to be done.
When speaking to the media on Thursday in the lead up to Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against Providence, junior guard Christian Braun talked about forcing other teams to play poorly so the Jayhawks don’t have to rely on making shots to win. Self concurred that that’s an important principle, but he said Kansas isn’t doing that consistently enough.
“I think we have at times. I don’t think we have consistently,” Self said. “We won the league at Illinois [in 2001] and we shot 42 percent as a team for a year. And so the mindset was, it wasn’t us playing good, the mindset was we just have to make sure that everybody else plays worse. That’s a mindset you develop.”
The Jayhawks have done well offensively as of late without shooting the ball especially well. That includes the win over Creighton, when senior guard Remy Martin went 7-of-14 from the floor and the rest of the team shot just over 38%.
And yet, KU still found a way to win.
“When you make shots, a lot of times you lose that intensity,” Self said. “So we haven’t been consistent with that as much. But I do think we’re getting better at it.”
For as much as Self believes there’s room for the Jayhawks to grow on defense, the importance on that end of the floor isn’t lost on the players, especially for a matchup against one of the nation’s best-shooting teams.
“They run a lot of really good sets,” Braun said. “We’ve got to do a really good job focusing, talking and communicating on switches and stuff like that. So it’s really important that we do hold these teams to those low numbers, especially Providence. They shot the ball really well last game.”
Kansas is favored relatively heavily for Friday’s games, with most sportsbooks making the Jayhawks 7.5-point favorites over the Friars. That’s the third-biggest point spread in the Sweet 16, with Purdue over St. Peter’s and Gonzaga over Arkansas as the only bigger favorites.
Providence is happy to play the role of underdog this weekend, something they’ve clung to all season. Self isn’t buying some of the narratives about the Friars, though, including how “lucky” some analytical models believe them to be.
“Ed [Cooley]’s done an unbelievable [job], won 25 and wins the Big East, have a chip every time they play, which is part of being a good salesman,” Self said. “But teams need to buy into a certain thought or theory or belief. And I’m sure that’s been the thing that’s probably driven them as much as anybody.”
Both Self and Providence coach Ed Cooley commented Thursday that they believe these two teams have a lot of similarities. For Self, that specifically includes the Friars’ personnel, who he said mirrors some of the types of players the Jayhawks have to play all season in the Big 12.
“You go into a season in your nonconference games hoping you can play nonconference opponents that would give you an idea what it would be like to play somebody that plays a different style than your league played that may prepare you for NCAA tournament. I’m not sure either one of us will benefit from that mindset,” Self said, going on to add: “We’re going to be playing somebody that is comparable to what we have seen the majority of the time this year.”
Kansas has been as successful as anyone in the Sweet 16 under Self, going 8-2 in regional semifinal games. And the Jayhawks are favored to win this weekend’s matchup with the Friars not just by point spread, but also by other metrics including ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
It goes without saying that Friday’s contest won’t be an easy one. But if KU keeps buying into the identity Self is preaching, the path back to the Elite 8 becomes much clearer.
Click below to hear what Bill Self and the Jayhawks had to say about facing Providence in the Sweet 16.