Five things we learned this week: The Kansas zone, Luke Kennard and what’s up with the Pac-12?
1. So how much zone is Bill Self going to play moving forward?: In a year where Bill Self, who has been as wed to two-big lineups as Gregg Popovich, has fully embraced the idea of playing small-ball, the Kansas head coach faces another important decision regarding his team: Just how much zone should they play?
I ask because Self, who loves playing man-to-man more than I love New Haven-style apizza, went into Rupp Arena on Saturday night and knocked off No. 4 Kentucky thanks to the ability of his team to flip-flop between 2-3 zone and a triangle-and-two defenses. Using junk defenses like this isn’t necessarily new for Self - he loves tossing out wrinkles like that - but it’s usually his last-gasp effort to slow an opponent down.
After the win, the question needs to be asked: Should Kansas go zone full-time?
On the one hand, that defense really does have some benefits for the Jayhawks. It saves the legs of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, as they play close to 40 minutes in big games, and it protects Landen Lucas, who can focus on walling-up at the rim and rebounding in his area instead of having to risk fouls battling for position in the post and trying to defend 1-on-1 on the block; with Udoka Azubuike out, Lucas is really the only big man at Self’s disposal.
It’s also worth noting that, on paper, this is a team with a roster that should work well in a zone. Mason and Graham aren’t going to give up much penetration, and the wings - two of Josh Jackson, LeGerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk - have the length and athleticism to run at perimeter shooters and challenge shots when skip passes are thrown.
On the other hand, it’s important to note that this Kentucky team is not really built to play against a zone. We know how much trouble they have shooting the ball from the perimeter already, which isn’t exactly ideal against a zone, and their front court players aren’t known for their ability to pass the ball. Maybe it was less about the Kansas zone itself and more the result of a team that doesn’t have the pieces to break it down.
Whatever the truth may be, this is something to track moving forward.
2. It’s time to turn this thing over to Luke Kennard: The Luke Kennard conundrum has been solved.
After seeing what the sophomore guard did to Wake Forest in the second half on Saturday - 30 points, 10-for-10 shooting from the floor, a game-winning three - I think it’s time for the Blue Devils to embrace the obvious: Luke Kennard is the best player on their team even if he isn’t the best NBA prospect, and Duke will be at their best if they go ride or die with him leading the way.
Watch the performance here:
The big thing to take away from this isn’t just that Kennard went bonkers shooting the ball - that’s obvious - it’s how well he got others involved and how effective he was not only in isolation but in ball-screen actions. He had four assists, but not shown are the open shots he created that were missed or the hockey assists that he had, where his penetration moved the defense and the basket was scored after an extra pass was made.
Duke doesn’t need a point guard.
They need to understand that Kennard is the guy that can get them where they want to go.
3. Shout out to Josh Pastner: Think about this for a second: Memphis paid Josh Pastner to leave.
That’s how bad things got for him in Memphis. The university paid him to take another job.
That other job ended up being Georgia Tech, where Pastner took over for Brian Gregory and has proceeded to put together a team that looks like it will be in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday. Seriously. The Yellow Jackets don’t have a perfect résumé by any stretch of the imagination, but after this last week, where they blew out Florida State and beat Notre Dame, they have wins over three of the best teams in the ACC, including North Carolina.
4. Arizona is the best team in the Pac-12. Again: In the preseason, we thought that Oregon was the best team in the conference. After UCLA took the nation by storm over the course of the first two months of the season while Oregon struggled with Dillon Brooks’ returning from injury, the Bruins looked like shoe-ins to be the Pac-12 champs. Then UCLA forget how to defend and Brooks turned back into an all-american, meaning that the Ducks were, again, the favorites in the league.
All the while, Arizona was quietly winning, and winning, and winning. They put us on notice last weekend, when Allonzo Trier returned from his absence and they went into Pauley Pavilion and roughed up UCLA, but we got a firm answer regarding the Pac-12 hierarchy this weekend. With Oregon taking a loss at Colorado, who was 0-7 in the Pac-12 entering last week, it looks as if Sean Miller has himself yet another Pac-12 title favorite.
5. Just how good is the Big 12?: We know how good Kansas is. Baylor still has some doubters, but their 20-1 record, and the teams they’ve beaten to get there, speak for themselves. West Virginia has beaten those two teams by a combined 37 points.
So it’s probably safe to assume that all three of those teams are good.
What about the rest of the league? Well, it didn’t fare well in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Kansas State, who has looked like an NCAA tournament team this season, lost by 12 at Tennessee. Iowa State, who some thought would be the fourth-best team in the conference, lost at Vanderbilt. TCU, who is in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid, lost at home to Auburn. Oklahoma, who won at West Virginia, lost by 32 points at home to Florida.
The best win for the Big 12 outside the top three in the league? Oklahoma State, who is 2-6 in the conference whipping Arkansas. Those could end up being costly losses.