KU assistant pinpoints ways Jayhawks can improve defensively

Arizona State guard Shannon Evans II (11) puts a three over Kansas guard Lagerald Vick (2) during the second half, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Monday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours after watching the Jayhawks get torched by Arizona State at Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas basketball assistant Norm Roberts grabbed a couple of KU’s younger players and had a conversation about defense.

The 13th-ranked Jayhawks did not practice on Monday so this was not a discussion about fundamentals, footwork and scouting reports. Instead, it was a simple look at KU’s philosophy on how to defend.

“We kind of have it reversed in our players’ minds,” Roberts shared during Monday’s Hawk Talk radio broadcast. “When the other team scores, or they catch us in a game, we think we have to score more, score more, score more. In reality, we should be thinking we have to get stops and then the scoring will happen.”

For spurts of most games, particularly in the early going, the Jayhawks seem to get this. But their inability to sustain their strong defensive starts has cost them dearly in the past two outings. And Roberts said the key to better defensive performances in the days ahead included everything from technique and communication to confidence and desire.

“The one thing that we talk about is, ‘Start right, you’ll be right,'” Roberts said. “So we have to start off right and in a lot of situations (against Arizona State) we didn’t start right. Make them catch it a step or two farther out and you’ll control what they’re going to be. They’re going to be drivers rather than shooters. I think we just have to get better at that. That’ll make our feet quicker. That’ll make us get to rotations faster.”

One audience question on Monday asked Roberts flat out if he still thought this Kansas team could be good defensively. To be fair, the Jayhawks, despite their recent struggles, still do rank 8th nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, so, losses or not, it’s not as if the analysts and numbers paint Kansas as a team that cannot stop anybody.

Roberts’ answer to that point-blank question offered proper perspective.

“It can be,” he said. “But we’ve got to lock down. …Last year when we played Nebraska, pretty much at this time, we were 8-1 and now we’re 7-2. So let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Just understand that we let a couple get away from us, we could’ve won those games and now we have to make up for those mistakes. Until we get better on the defensive end and we change our mindset, it won’t get better.”

That mindset part is key, both in the eyes of Roberts and in the eyes of Self. Self began talking about KU’s need for better mental toughness even before the loss to Arizona State and he addressed it plenty after the game.

Roberts said there were plenty of ways to change a player’s mindset and he pinpointed a couple of them.

“Right now we’ve got guys out there that kind of score, score, score, score. And no one’s doing the intangibles,” Roberts said. “We’ve got to do more of the intangible things so (we) may have to get guys out of their comfort zone.”

He continued: “The other thing that was key with (our past) guys is they were talkers. You couldn’t shut Josh Jackson up. And Frank (Mason III) became a talker. Devonte’s always been a talker. Landen (Lucas) was a talker. They would always talk on the court. And now we’ve got some guys in those positions that, when it comes time to talk, we get quiet. And you can’t do that and be a defensive team.

“There are going to be days that you don’t shoot the ball well and your mainstay is always going to be defense. No matter what, we have to defend.”