Embrace the ugly, Lawrence: A top 25 defense will have to carry KU

Kansas' grind-it-out style may not be the most enjoyable to watch, but that suffocating defense is what will carry Landen Lucas (33) and the Jayhawks through March Madness.

Charlie Riedel/AP

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Unless your idea of beauty is a six-car pileup, we’ll warn you now: The Kansas Jayhawks of present may not be your cup of java.

Take Friday night. Friday night, two aspirin and a fifth of bourbon. No. 9 KU missed on 28 of 49 attempts from the floor, on nine of 12 from beyond the arc, and on 10 of 27 from the free-throw line. Oh, and turned it over 18 times, because why the hell not.

"There for a while," Jayhawks coach Bill Self cracked, "I think both teams set basketball back."

And yet the Jayhawks dominated No. 16 Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, pretty much from the final two minutes of the first half onward, winning 62-52, clubbing and bludgeoning and dinosaur-stomping their way to a seventh Big 12 tourney title game since 2005.

1988: Danny and the Miracles.

2015: Perry and the Shin Splints.

"Uh, naw," freshman guard Devonte’ Graham (four points in 11 minutes) countered. "I don’t think we would like that (nickname) too much. But we like winning."

No kidding.

March rewards survival, not style points. Self gets that, and always has. And Friday’s semi felt like a lot of league wins for the Big 12 champs (26-7) this year: Less-than-artful, sloppy (18 turnovers), stringing together a "meh" kind of night while simultaneously making the other guy look positively dreadful by comparison. The Bears shot 32.8 percent (19 for 58) on the night, including a comical 18.2 percent on their treys — four-for-stinking-22. Woof.

"I thought the mindset was, you know, because we hadn’t made shots lately," said the Kansas coach, whose team held Baylor to its lowest point total of the year. "Obviously, if we can’t depend on that, we can depend on making sure the other team doesn’t play well, and we actually did that pretty well.


"If we wanted to play a ‘pretty’ game with Baylor, they would probably beat our butts. So I think we did a good job of making it a game with no rhythm."

Or grace. Or flow. Or whatever.

"Well, they are a great 3-point shooting team," point guard Frank Mason mused. "But not too many fell for them (Friday). We were lucky, I guess. But we made them take contested shots, tough shots, and they made a few."

Embrace the ugly, Lawrence. It’s your engine, your spine, your mantra the rest of this month, take it or leave it.

TeamRankings.com tracks 13 different shooting statistical categories, offensively and defensively, per team; it’s not the perfect frame, but it does provide a pretty good snapshot of what kind of group you’ve got. Of those 13, KU as of Friday afternoon ranked among the top 30 in Division I offensively in only two columns: free throws made per game (16.9, 19th) and free throws attempted per game (23.6, 25th). Defensively, though, it’s four categories: opponent effective field-goal percentage (44.6, 21st), opponent two-point shooting percentage (43.1, 24th), opponent shooting percentage (39.5, 28th) and opponent shooting efficiency (0.964, 15th).

By this point on the calendar, you are what you are. And what Self’s Jayhawks are is a bunch of grinders, 3-point makes be damned.

"I don’t know about that," said reserve center Hunter Mickelson, one of those defensive grinders (two blocks, two steals). "But we definitely had a good talking to (before the game), so that might’ve had something to do with it."

After a sleepwalk of a showing against ninth-seeded TCU, Self before the game Friday reiterated to his flock his, shall we say, disappointment that carried over from Thursday afternoon. Baylor, like the Frogs, has a crazy strong, crazy physical front — forward Rico Gathers is cut not unlike Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe — and a series of zone looks (2-1-2 mostly) that requires you to run your offense like a chess game, always thinking a move ahead, feeling for the gaps.

Of course, sometimes the best weapon against a junk defense is fast-break baskets of your own, before the other guy can line up his pieces.

Mickelson made his presence felt despite a handful of minutes, with a steal that led to a run-out and a Graham jumper with 2:08 left in the first half that pushed the KU cushion to 22-17, giving the top seed some space during a period that featured more combined turnovers (19) than field-goal makes (16). But despite the aesthetics, with junior forward Perry Ellis (11 points, six rebounds) back on the floor for the first time since March 3, sore knee and all, the Jayhawks looked as loose, as free, as confident, as they had in a couple of weeks.

"They’re a good (defensive) team and we executed (how) we should’ve executed," Baylor guard Kenny Chery said. "We had some careless turnovers, which they converted into points."

Lookin’ good! Check out our gallery of Big 12 hoops cheerleaders.

So go on: Embrace the ugly. The Jayhawks get the tourney’s No. 2 seed, Iowa State (24-8), the speedy ying to Self’s lunch-pail yang, in the title game Saturday afternoon. It’s KU’s 11th Big 12 championship game appearance; the Rock Chalkers have won nine of the first 10 trips, and are a perfect 6-0 in the conference final under Self, shin splints and all.

"I feel if we just continue doing that," Ellis said. "Good things are going to happen."

Remember: In March, good doesn’t always mean pretty. And you know what they say about defense and championships.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.