Kansas-Wake Forest Preview
There are few things that Kansas coach Bill Self loves more than playing defense.
He also loves a roster full of NBA-caliber talent on his team, and sometimes it's hard for those two loves to coexist.
The knock on the professional game for years - fairly or not - has been that defense is optional. Coaches routinely bemoan the rather lackadaisical way that one-and-done phenoms often apply themselves on that end of the floor.
So attention was paid when Kansas star Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall recruit and the potential top pick in next year's NBA draft, sidled up next to Self on the sideline in the second half of an 88-58 win over Towson on Friday and asked to guard the Tigers' best player.
"He was scoring," Wiggins said of Towson's Jerrelle Benimon, "and I just wanted to see how I'd do against him." With a big smile, Wiggins added: "I think my defense is underrated."
It's the kind of comment certain to make Self smile, too, and improvement on the defensive end is coming slowly.
After allowing then-No. 4 Duke to shoot more than 50 percent in a game the Jayhawks (4-0) still won 94-83 on Nov. 12, they held Iona to a 32.1-percent clip in the second half of an 86-66 victory Nov. 19. Towson shot just 20.7 percent in the first half last week before the Jayhawks rested their starters.
Self wants to see that improvement continue as the second-ranked Jayhawks head to the Bahamas this week for the championship rounds of the Battle 4 Atlantis. They open against Wake Forest (5-0) on Thursday.
Wiggins isn't the only highly touted recruit on the Jayhawks' roster this season or the only player potentially headed to the pros next season. Seven-footer Joel Embiid has already shown enough to make scouts salivate, and freshman guard Wayne Selden and sophomore forward Perry Ellis have exhibited enough in four games to send their stock soaring.
But the ability for Self to get the young, offensive-minded Jayhawks to buy into what he wants on defense may just be what decides whether this becomes a season to remember.
"It's an entire team of young'uns," Self said, "and it's going to be frustrating from time to time, but hopefully it'll be very rewarding at the end."
After a lackluster 80-63 season-opening win over Louisiana-Monroe in which they let their opponent shoot 42.9 percent, the Jayhawks were appropriately critical of their defensive effort.
No prompting from Self was required.
"We've been working on our defense, defensive rotation, and mostly how to guard our man without fouling," Embiid said. "We're still learning."
Yes, there are also those pesky fouls to consider.
Officials are cracking down on the physical hand-checking on the perimeter, and that's part of what's made Kansas so tough over the years. Self prefers players to get into the face of an opponent and harass them in the half-court, and that's become nearly impossible now.
"If you can guard the ball that eliminates a lot of rotation-type situations. If you can guard the ball. I'd like to guard the ball better," Self said. "But I just think as a whole, a mindset of not relaxing during possessions I think is something we need to improve on."
The Jayhawks could have their hands full against the Demon Deacons, who are averaging 85.6 points in their best start since opening 16-0 in 2008-09.
Sophomore guard Codi Miller-McIntyre leads the team with 18.6 points per game, but he was held below 20 for the first time in an 82-54 win over Citadel last Thursday after scoring nine and shooting 3 of 10.
Guard Coron Williams led the way with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range.
"We've beat the teams that we should've beat," said Williams, a fifth-year transfer from Robert Morris. "Now we're really going to see what our team is made of - being on the road finally, and getting out of our comfort zone. We're going to see how tough our young guys are."
These teams last met in December 2001 as Kansas won 83-76.