Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but heading into the start of the NCAA Tournament, Kansas looks like the best basketball team in the country.
This marks the sixth time in the last 10 years that the Jayhawks have landed a No. 1 seed. It’s the second time in that decade-long stretch that the selection committee has made KU the top overall team.
Of course, the only thing about Bill Self’s program that gets as much attention as its dominance of the Big 12 is its reputation for flameouts in the Big Dance. While the Jayhawks rocked and chalked to a national championship in 2008 and a title game appearance in 2012, they’ve also bowed out in the first weekend of the tournament five times since 2005.
KU’s recent history of early exits has turned “never trust a Bill Self-coached team in March” into one of those golden rules in the guides to picking your bracket that will be popping up all over the Internet in the next 24 hours. This year is different. Here’s why. (Note: The metrics used below are all attributable to kenpom.com.)
The Big 12
KU’s 12-year streak of winning its conference title probably does speak to the year-in, year-out quality of the Big 12. It’s usually a little on the flabby side.
Not this year, though. It’s the best league in the country by a fair margin, according to kenpom.com, and the strongest overall conference in five years.
The Jayhawks rarely got a break in the round-robin league schedule this year, but they ran up a 15-3 record in the regular season and got three more wins in the conference tournament. All in all, KU went 12-2 against the other Big 12 teams that qualified for this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Consequently, this team is as battle tested as any during Self’s tenure in Lawrence.
Perry Ellis leads the team in scoring, rebounding and jokes about longevity. Frank Mason III is No. 1 in assists and serves as KU’s primary ballhandler. Graham’s role on the team is a little less defined, but he’s what makes the Jayhawks go.
The sophomore is a combo guard in the truest sense of the word. He handles the ball and distributes well enough to share the load with Mason, giving Self two point guards in effect.
At the same time, while Graham ranks fourth on the team in scoring, he’s KU’s most effective scoring threat. He leads the team’s major contributors in effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and three-point percentage, where he ranks 56th in the country at 43.9 percent.
Notably, Graham went off in KU’s biggest games of the year, pumping in 27 points in the Big 12 Tournament final against West Virginia and 27 and 20 in KU’s two games against Oklahoma. Self will likely give him a bigger role in the offense in the next three weeks.
Graham isn’t the Jayhawks’ only marksman. Ellis, Mason and Wayne Selden all connect at a clip of 40 percent or better from beyond the three-point arc, as does reserve Brannen Greene. Overall, KU ranks third nationally in three-point percentage, trailing just Michigan State and Oklahoma.
However, unlike teams such as Villanova and OU, their offense doesn’t revolve around the three ball. About 30 percent of their points come off threes, while half come off twos.
We’ve seen time and again that outside-oriented teams live on a precipitous edge in the NCAA Tournament. This KU team can beat teams with the three, but the Jayhawks don’t have to.
Doesn’t sacrifice on D
For as skilled as the Jayhawks are on offense, they’re actually better on the other end.
KU ranks No. 5 overall in defensive efficiency. The Jayhawks build from the inside out with a rotation of as many as six post players who stand 6-8 or taller. In Graham, they also have a stopper to harass wings out on the perimeter, as he did when he forced Oklahoma star Buddy Hield into a sloppy 5-15 outing in Norman.
KU opponents are shooting 43.3 percent from inside the arc, putting the team 18th nationally. In other words, if you’re going to beat the Jayhawks, you better hit shots from deep.
Even then, best of luck.