There’s a new No. 1 in college basketball.
Well, at least in one very key department.
Kansas earned a 60-46 victory Saturday over TCU at Schollmaier Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, a suffocating performance that saw the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks limit the Horned Frogs to just 0.70 points per possession. With that feat, KU moved into the top spot in advanced analytics outlet KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings — that metric calculates points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent.
KU is allowing a stingy 84.5 points per 100 possessions, nearly a full point better than second-place West Virginia (85.4).
“I think that’s what we kind of hang our hat on, just getting stops and really just guarding,” said sophomore point guard Devon Dotson. “Really just talking it out, communicating with each other about getting stops. ... I think when we’re turned up like that it can be hard for other teams to get going and get in a rhythm.”
TCU scored just 18 points in the opening half en route to a 13-point deficit at the break. That helped offset KU’s own unsightly 13-for-36 shooting first-half shooting clip, a statistic dragged down by a 5-for-24 performance from the Jayhawk guards across the initial 20 minutes.
Speaking after the game, Bill Self referenced a lesson from former Oklahoma State head coach and longtime mentor Eddie Sutton: You don’t have to be better than the other team for 40 minutes, Self argued, as long as you stay even until that one offensive spurt comes.
“Fortunately for us,” Self continued, “we had two spurts.”
KU, which took command with a 7-0 run midway through the first half, put the game away with a 12-0 rally that made the score 56-40 with 3:20 remaining. That stretch can be directly attributed to the Jayhawk defense, with three steals and a shot clock violation on consecutive possessions leading to the first seven points of that run, all on fastbreak opportunities.
“In that stretch where we went up four to up 11 or whatever, we didn’t run offense. We didn’t,” Self said. “All we did was get steals and make a layup. So our numbers are so inflated for the better because we got some steals and layups. If it wasn’t for that our offense would’ve been pretty inept. ...
“We locked in and guarded then. That was to me the biggest difference in the game, that two-minute or three-minute stretch.”
The Jayhawks, who now lead the Big 12 with 57.1 points allowed per game in conference play, are also at the top in league field goal percentage defense (36.5%). KU finished Saturday’s game with 10 steals, seven blocked shots and 17 points off 17 turnovers by TCU.
In senior center Udoka Azubuike and junior guard Marcus Garrett, Self has two players he recently labeled “elite” on the defensive end. And in Dotson and sophomore Ochai Agbaji, the Jayhawks have two guards that are trending in that direction as the season enters its home stretch.
That said, Self couldn’t pinpoint a specific time where this group gained its defensive identity.
Perhaps it's been there all along.
“You look back in the games that we lost, we guarded Duke (in the season opener), we guarded Villanova and we guarded Baylor at least respectably fairly well,” Self said. “It’s just that their defense was better than our defense. But I think that’s been kind of who we are.
"One thing about it when you labor offensively: It definitely gives you more of a defensive identity, which sometimes is a positive because if you score easy then a lot of times you don’t (give) the same detail to defense.”
Self downplays early NCAA tourney bracket
The Jayhawks (20-3, 9-1 Big 12) on Saturday were named one of four projected No. 1 seeds by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, earning a nod as the second overall seed. KU is at the moment listed as the top dog in the Midwest Region, which has Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups in Indianapolis.
Self didn’t put much stock in that announcement.
“I would say from our analytics and from our résumé and stuff we probably deserve that. We’ve played a hard schedule and everything. But that doesn’t mean anything,” Self said. “You lose one game, you drop. You win two more, you move up. But I do think at this point in time we probably deserve that.”
No. 1-ranked Baylor was listed as the top-overall seed in the South Region, while Gonzaga (West) and San Diego State (East) rounded out the first wave of No. 1s.