Kansas had just taken its biggest lead of the game, and a few seconds later, it showed exactly why that 23-point advantage would never get any larger in a 96-83 victory over Iona on Sunday.
KU’s K.J. Adams and Christian Braun didn’t communicate on a switch, leaving an Iona shooter wide open for a three. Braun was late on the closeout, then decided not to get a hand up.
The shot missed, but Adams couldn’t bring in the defensive rebound. Eventually, the carom got to Iona’s Nelly Joseph, who passed to Walter Clayton for another wide-open, spot-up three.
KU’s Bobby Pettiford was in the area but didn’t challenge. Braun stunted but didn’t offer as well, allowing the Gaels a second attempt completely unchallenged.
This one went through just before KU coach Bill Self’s screams echoed off the walls at HP Field House.
“You’ve got to get back to him, Bobby!” Self yelled.
Perhaps most jarring about that one sequence, though, was an issue that Self repeatedly saw during his team’s three games in the ESPN Events Invitational.
There just wasn’t enough urgency — not enough busting to get a hand up or fighting like heck to help a teammate.
If we’re honest, those have always been hallmarks of Self’s best defensive teams. He often glowingly talks about the 2008 team and how, when things broke down, he had helpers helping help defenders and helpers helping the helpers’ helpers.
OK, that’s all a mouthful, but it means this: When one Jayhawk got beat defensively, his buddy was there to back him up. One guy covered for the other who covered for the other, until there was no opposition advantage, and KU was back to full strength.
Right now, the Jayhawks aren’t just struggling to guard their men in front of them, though. They’re also laboring to do the right thing after that initial breakdown takes place.
For Self, there isn’t just one problem to figure out either. With his veterans, it’s often a motivation issue, as the team has often lacked defensive focus after it’s built leads.
Self addressed this directly with his team at the 16:34 mark of the second half, hollering, “Where’s our energy, Blue?” from the sideline. At the time, Iona had scored on each of its first four possessions after halftime.
With the newcomers, though, Self often sees guys trying to do the right thing but failing because they don’t fully grasp his principles — or what he’s wanting in specific time and score situations.
Forward Zach Clemence, for instance, reached in for a foul on a KU missed free throw about 90 feet from Iona’s basket late in the first half. Self hollered at him for giving Iona “free points.”
To Clemence, this probably seemed in the moment like a standard hustle play that his coach desires. For Self, though, it’s not a wise move given the circumstances, as Iona was in the bonus, while Clemence would have been better off running back to help KU set up its defense to make things as difficult on Iona’s offense as possible.
There were other examples like this. Pettiford seems to want to do what’s best with help defense, but one time in the first half against Iona, he crowded the lane instead of simply sticking with his man in the corner. Like Clemence, it was good intent but a bad basketball play — and one that cost KU three points.
Remy Martin made an unnecessary gamble in the second half too, flying across the floor in an attempt to draw a charge while leaving his man open for a three.
Iona didn’t miss many of those. The Gaels made 8 of 12 threes in the second half, while also scoring 36 points in the game’s final 9 1/2 minutes.
The woes are part of a puzzle Self still is trying to figure out after completely reshaping his roster this past offseason. The Jayhawks have many guys with different talents, yet a team that seems like it’s struggling to mesh for long stretches.
Self, after the game, took responsibility for that, saying he had taken KU’s best players out of rhythm lately because he’s gone to his bench so often.
“I think I’ve got to do a better job of finding a way to sub and still have three starters in the games,” Self said. “I think that would help.”
The reality is quickly taking shape with this KU team six games in: It will be much better on offense than it is on defense.
Self has so many great pieces on that end. Martin is a playmaker, while Ochai Agbaji has played like a first-team All-American thus far. In addition, KU has multiple shooting specialists off the bench, and on any night, a guy like Braun can emerge for a team-high 18 points — as he did against Iona — when teams don’t give him enough attention while worried about the others.
“They’re tough to play against,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said.
While that’s true, Self realizes how much work remains ahead defensively, which includes improving with fundamentals and knowledge of the game.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it also will be trying to shift his team’s collective mindset.
While the Jayhawks are giving effort, they’re just not doing so with desperation.
And Self’s best teams have typically relied on both.